The challenge of writing a modern Southern novel must be daunting. After all, what remains to be uncovered? There are the familiar narrative landmines of racial subplots, off-kilter aunts, small-town characters, and the trauma of growing up in a world and a region that just doesn't make sense to most adults and certainly not to a sensitive, aware ten-year-old boy. In his second novel, Tommy Hays, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, steps right into the fray, taking the genre and infusing it with a direct, understated honesty all his own.
In the Family Way begins in Greenville with the seminal event in Jeru Lamb's world: the death of his older brother, Mitchell. It is an event that sends Jeru's otherwise normal mother to embrace Christian Science for solace, convinces his father to quit his steady job at an advertising agency to devote himself with equal zealotry to literary ambitions, and casts a bizarre, tragic pall over three generations of the Lamb family in general. Jeru, it seems, must learn to deal with the loss in his own way. Then, with his mother's unexpected pregnancy a development strongly against her doctor's orders Jeru suddenly has more fears of loss to confront.
Told through Jeru's eyes, Hays's novel tackles the daunting task of presenting a believable young narrator clever enough to relate an engaging story while not being so wise that the author's voice seeps through. Hays does a credible job. We may never fully accept Jeru as merely a young boy limited by what someone his age would know, but at the same time readers will relish the particular youthful integrity Jeru brings to the search for meaning in his world. This act of creating such a memorable and convincing narrator is where In the Family Way succeeds, and it separates Hays from the rush of recent Southern fiction. At its best moments, the novel contains too much truth to be merely a novel. At times there is so much veracity in the choices, the words, and the decisions Hays makes, readers will find themselves wondering how much of this fiction is based on fact. How much of Tommy Hays can be found in the touching, engaging story of Jeru Lamb? After all is done, perhaps that is the sign of success in fiction, creating a character who lives in our thoughts after the last page is read.
Todd Keith is a freelance writer and website manager.