Cover image for Heavenly days : a novel
Heavenly days : a novel
Wilcox, James.
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Publication Information:
New York : Viking, [2003]

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199 pages ; 24 cm
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Beloved Southern chronicler James Wilcox, with his rare blend of hilarity and compassion, is a novelist whose work has been featured in both Harold Bloom's The Western Canonand GQ's recent list of the forty-five best fiction books published in the last forty-five years. Tula Springs, Louisiana, first created by Wilcox two decades ago, is striving to find its foothold in a disarmingly modern world. So, for that matter, is Lou Jones-middle aged, sensitive, and gutsy-who lives in a $295,000 Cajun cabin and works as the receptionist at a fundamentalist health emporium in a defunct train station. It's the only job in town that doesn't require computer literacy and she earns three times what the state college paid her for teaching music theory. Soon the bemused Lou finds herself embroiled with the North American Bassoon Society, a gun-toting tax assessor, her maid's enigmatic polite-society mother, her laid-off husband's obsession with his childhood home, and the theft of a much-disputed ornate dresser. Heavenly Daysis James Wilcox at his best, a gift to his longtime readers and to a whole generation of new ones.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Wilcox, director of Louisiana State University's creative writing program, has set most of his fiction in the small town of Tula Springs, Louisiana. His newest novel is not only set there but also reprises some characters originally introduced by Wilcox 20 years ago in his hilarious first novel, Modern Baptists, which is listed in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (1994). Louones, moving through her fifties at too rapid a pace, is unhappy: her husband lost his job and moved out of their $300,000 "Cajun cabin" and is now living in his parents' house. Plus, Lou, who minds everyone's business except her own, has a doctorate in music but makes more money working as the receptionist for a fundamentalist health club than she could ever earn at the state college. Wilcox adds in some dizzying subplots involving Lou's oldest friend, a scandal at the college, a group of militant lesbians, and marital infidelity. Wilcox's comic sensibility and compassionate heart animate this bittersweetly humorous novel. But the ending? It's the ultimate in literary ambiguity. --Nancy Pearl Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

After an excursion to New York City in his fine but atypical Plain and Normal (1998), Wilcox returns triumphantly to Tula Springs, La., the setting for most of his novels, starting with his dazzling debut, Modern Baptists (1983). Twenty years later, the author's quintessential Southern town still boasts its share of endearing eccentrics. A former college professor with a Ph.D. in music, Lou Jones writes a monthly column for the North American Bassoon Society newsletter, but she earns her bread as the receptionist at WaistWatch, a fundamentalist-owned "makeover franchise." ("Every day at WaistWatch is Christmas, the franchise's orientation booklet explains. Every client is gifted every day with a rise in self-esteem.") Lou's friend and fellow employee, Maigrite, who has one leg shorter than the other, is too proud to park in the WaistWatch handicap space and is always taking Lou's spot. So in an effort to create a proper parking space for Maigrite, Lou tries to cover the blue handicap lines with ivory paint (the asphalt's "pits and humps ruining her straight line"), thereby attracting the unwelcome attention of Mrs. Melvin Tudie, the local tax assessor. This is just one of many small, interlocking incidents in a comic plot that doesn't seem to go much of anywhere, yet manages to make some subtle points about such serious issues as racial and religious tolerance. Wilcox's eye for the telling detail is as unerring as ever, his dead-on dialogue sparkles with Southern charm and his affection for his well-meaning if often misguided characters is infectious. Once again he shows that gentle, civilized humor can be quite as effective as the more over-the-top variety. (Sept. 15) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



CHAPTER ONE In the third Tuesday of every month, Lou Jones sets the alarm for 4:30 A.M. so she can make it out to the toolshed by 5:15. There she allows herself exactly one hour and forty-five minutes to stitch together her column for the North American Bassoon Society newsletter. ìNotes from Up and Down the Staff,î itís called. To help her get this chore done, Louís husband customized a plywood desk so that it curves around the riding lawnmower. Lou would have preferred to banish the lawnmower from the toolshed, but for tax purposes, she had to keep it there. A few weeks ago there had been some unpleasantness with City Hall. Because of the dimity curtains adorning the toolshedís bow window and the morning glories lacing its gutters, Mrs. Melvin Tudie, the newly elected tax assessor, decided that it was actually a guesthouse. Incensed, Louís husband not only lugged the refrigerator out of the shed but also hauled off the daybed Lou needed to spread out her notes on the comings and goings of the Societyís fully paid-up members. Lou hoped that would be the end of it. But Don, her husband, was intent on making this into a federal case. The mayor himself would have to be informed that the air conditioning in the toolshed was absolutely essential for the financial records stored there, to keep off the goddam mildew. And the sink was only used to wash off gasoline and grease after mowing. As for the toilet, his wife had developed a slight bladder problem and needed one close by when she pruned her column. Luckily, the day before Donís appointment with the mayor, the tax assessor was admitted to the brand-new wing of the Pentecostal hospital for liposuction. Lou was able to convince Don to let sleeping dogs lie. And so far, no notice of an increase in property taxes has arrived in Louís mailbox. On this third Tuesday in September, Louís having a particularly hard time with the column. When she types out all the news sheís solicited, sheís still 217 words short. After an arduous struggle, she ekes out the necessary words by grafting a few facts about how pink hydrangeas can be turned blue (sprinkle aluminum onto the soil) onto an item about a Waco bassoonist who tends a hummingbird garden. ìFinito,î Lou mutters as she stuffs the column into a priority mailer. Since the post office isnít open yet, she will leave the envelope with her husband on her way to work. He always promises to mail her column the minute the doors open. Before working out this system, Lou had been spending a small fortune on Federal Express. Needless to say, the Society never reimbursed herónot one red cent. Louís husband lives across town in a house owned by his parents. For health reasons, her in-laws have moved to a retirement community in the Arizona desert. Lou had tried to sell their house for them, but every time a reasonable bid was made, Donís mother would get panicky and say how tired she was of water. (The retirees were living in a houseboat moored on an artificial lake.) If something should ever happen to Don Sr., God forbid, well then, she would probably want to move back to dry land. Lou then suggested renting the house. There was a friend of a friend at work who would be willing to take it on a month-to-month basis. With a sigh, Louís mother-in- law agreed to the proposal, as long as the new tenant didnít change a stick of furniture in the house. Lou saved her in-laws so much money by fixing the leaky faucets and stopped-up toilets herself that, even if Don grumbled about her overalls, she felt a surge of something with the accomplishmentómost likely, self-esteem. The rent, though, was another matter. After it hadnít been paid for three months in a row, the friend of a friend started filling up the house with boarders. A librarian and a U-Haul mechanic took up residence in the den, while the north and west bedrooms were occupied by nail sculptors. When the neighbors started complaining about the noise from an endlessly repeated Titanic soundtrack, Lou offered to help the illegal subtenants find nice, cheap efficiency apartments. The sculptors took her up on this, but the librarian and the mechanic claimed they were not illegal. In fact, they told Lou she had better quit her snooping aroundópeeling Popeyeís chicken skin from the linoleum, vacuuming, setting out roach motels, this was what they called ìsnoopingîóor theyíd swear out a complaint for trespassing. If it werenít for Don, the house on Coffee Ridge Road would probably still be under siege. Lou, of course, could not approve of her husbandís tactics. She herself had been planning legal redress through a talented arbitrator who cleaned their pool and threw clay pots. But before Lou could map out a strategy with the potter, Don barreled over to his parentsí house and cleared out all the squattersí belongings, tossing them right out onto the carport after a brief altercation with the librarian, a fistfight the details of which Lou really didnít want to hear about. To make sure that the librarian didnít carry out his threat to return with Martha Stewart wallpaper for the den, Don had all the locks changed and then installed himself in the east bedroom. Heís been standing guard there now for about six weeks or so, during which time Louís noticed a definite improvement in their marital relations. For some reason, with a house of his own, Don seems more attentive and courteous. He no longer suspects her of using his toothbrush or leaving rings on the coffee table. As for Lou, sheís free to eat exactly what she wantsóand when. And she can sleep on her plain white polyester sheets, cheap and easy to wash. No more looks from the dry cleaner when she brings in the black satin ones Don favors. ìKnock, knock,î Lou calls out as she unlocks the back door of her in-lawsí. ìJust meódonít shoot.î Not long ago, Lou entered the premises without announcing herself and was greeted by an alarming barkóin what sounded like Korean or something. This Don bellowed out in a crouch, ready to spring. Apparently, he still hadnít recovered from the contretemps with the librarian, but Lou was not persuaded that buying a $59.95 tae kwon do videotape was the best way to go about restoring oneís peace of mind. Tai chi was what she had recommended, the free classes they were offering senior citizens at the new recreation center. Don protested that being fifty didnít qualify him as a senior citizen, and Lou had to agree that it was hard to imagine him as a senior anything, the way he behaved sometimes. Don looks up from the base of the food pyramid heís working onóa bowl heaped with oat- bran dinosaurs. Does one really need six to eleven servings of grains and bread per day? Lou wonders. If she ate as much as these cereal boxes advised, she would have time for nothing else. And yet itís Don who never gains an ounce. She, who rarely slows down for a square meal, weighs almost as much as the librarianís girlfriend, the U-Haul mechanic. The librarian himself, though, is so willowy that itís no wonder Don was caught off guard by his left hook. A real gentleman, Don just protected his face, never really punching the diminutive young man back very hard, and finally steered him out the door with a hammerlock. ìNo, thanks,î she says to the green banana heís waggling in her face. ìI donít have time. Hereís the column, dear. Will you promise to get it there first thing? And donít let Mr. Singhmarishi tell you heís out of receipts again. I want a receipt.î Propping the envelope against a guava, Lou sniffs the air. Heís been at it again, cleaning every surface in the kitchen, from the island heís hunched over to the pewter cows with nutmeg and cumin in their bellies. Pine cleaner, ammonia, Lysolóall these telltale scents not quite masked by a heavy dose of lilac air freshener. This is what Don does when he canít sleep. The smell would always wake Lou at three or four in the morning, back before Don moved to Coffee Ridge. Well, she supposes itís a harmless enough outlet. Being downsized canít be a very pleasant experience for anyone. But for Don, whoís always been so responsible, such a dedicated employee, it was a crushing blow. What a good provider heís been, tooóbuying her that lavish showplace they canít afford now, ignoring her pleas for a more modest home without all the track lighting and alarms that make her feel like a live-in docent. ìWhat, Lou? Why are you staring at me?î ìI was just thinking what a handsome man Iíve got.î ìGot where?î Even though Donís not conventionally handsome, Lou began to realize shortly after he moved out to guard his parentsí property, after he wasnít constantly underfoot, day in day out, that her husband was really not bad-looking at all, not by a long shot. For a fifty-year-old heís in great shapeólean and mean and only an inch or two shorter than she would normally prefer. If only he would let his hair grow out. That crew cut makes him look like a drill sergeant, if drill sergeants dyed their hair. Thatís another thing sheíd appreciate, if heíd throw out the Grecian Formula and just let it be, his hair. Sheís not ashamed of her gray. If anything, itís a badge of honor. Sheís digging in her purse for the keys to the BMW when she notices the rubber band around her wrist. Something important she must remember. What is it? Oh, yes. ìThat printer, Don. Itís still cluttering up my desk. You promised me a week ago youíd give it back to Alpha.î Alpha is another luxury they can ill afford, what with Don still looking for work. But even when they were flush, Lou never felt comfortable with the idea of having a housekeeper. She only gives Alpha the lightest chores and does the real work herself. Maybelle, Donís mother, was behind all this. For years Alpha had worked for Donís parents, and when they moved to Arizona, Maybelle made her son promise to hire the woman. Lou protested, of course, insisting that Alpha deserved a job with more dignityóand decided to pay for her education. Alpha, though, tore up Louís check. She did not accept handouts from anyone. Since she was sixteen, Alpha has been on her own, working her way from Mombasa to Freetown, from Grenada to Tula Springs. Just what sort of education did Lou think she needed after all she, Alpha, had been through? Please do not speak to me about dignity, Lou Jones. With a paper towel Don wipes up a few drops of lactose-free milk. ìItís going to hurt her feelings, Lou.î ìHow can she afford to give me a birthday present like that?î ìPrinters arenít that expensive, babe. Besides, I might have helped out a little myself.î Even after all these years of being married to him, Lou can hardly believe her ears. How often has she told him she doesnít want a computer? And where in heavenís name did he think she would find the time to learn how to use one? Why, she doesnít even have a spare minute to play the $17,000 bassoon he gave her back in 1987, after the bunion surgery. Itís been months, years, since sheís touched the darn thing. ìAll right, thatís it.î Lou pats the Formica counter blindly, hoping she will perhaps feel the keys she has lost. ìYou take that printer back today, J. Donald Jones.î ìI thought if you saw how small it was, you wouldnít be afraid of the rest. A laptop hardly takes up any space at all.î With the back of her hand, she swipes at a tear. ìYou want to send us to the poorhouse, is that it? Donít sssh me.î Alphaís motherís bedroom is right off the kitchen, and Donís been reminding her of this with a finger to his lip or pointing to the door. ìKeep it down, Lou.î ìNo, I wonít be shushed in my ownóin a home I unclogged on my hands and knees when everyone knows there are certain things female tenants should never flush down the toilet. And what thanks do I get? Does your mother realize what a real plumber would cost her?î ìMrs. Ompala,î Don warns, nodding again toward the bedroom door. Recently widowed, Alphaís mother had booked passage on a freighter from Mombasa to visit her daughter. But it seems Alphaís studio in the Hollywood Apartments just wasnít meant to house two adults without a certain amount of friction. While Alpha searches for more suitable quarters, Mrs. Ompala is making do at Donís parentsí. She would much rather have checked into a hotel, but Don has insisted she be his guest at Coffee Ridge. Besides, Tula Springs doesnít have a hotelójust a Super8 with video poker in every room, and it lies three miles outside the city limits. Lou has had only one encounter with Alphaís mother, an unfortunate one just a couple of days ago. It was so thoughtless of Don not to have told her that unlike her daughter, Mrs. Ompala isnít African-Americanóor rather, whatever...Lou covered her initial confusion with a too-hearty welcome, which Mrs. Ompala, a pale, regal woman of uncertain age, returned with a dim smile. Never had Lou been confronted by such elegance, such style. Every gesture of Mrs. Ompalaís, every syllable she uttered betrayed a breeding, a restraint that made the stains on Louís overalls loom like a veritable map of ignorance and squalor. And the womanís outfit, the way her immaculate cotton dress was draped so perfectly, every fold as graceful as a pietýísówell, is it any wonder that Lou tried to work into the conversation a casual mention of her Ph.D., the way she dissected the Lydian mode in Verkl"rte Nacht? ìYou looking for these?î Don shoves Louís keys across the island. Somehow they had wound up behind a porcelain cow oozing honey. As she licks the BMW keys clean, he says, ìYou know sheís expecting you for tea this afternoon.î ìWhat, Iím supposed to drop everything because her ladyship wants tea?î she grumbles, delighted. She is to have another chance, after all. This time will be different. No mention of her Ph.D. And most certainly, no overalls. ìAt five. Youíre home by then, Lou.î ìNo, itís impossible. Iíve got to transcribe those minutes, you know, and pick up...î ìFor me, babeócome on. Do it for me.î The way his voice cracks, slightly hoarse, is just how the sophomore manager of the baseball team had sounded when he tried, and failed, to act casual with the head cheerleader, herself, a senior. To be adored like that, worshiped with a hopeless loveóyes, that element of despair was so oddly appealing that she finally couldnít resist. It triggered in her a curious, blind adoration in return. ìAnd donít let Mr. Singhmarishi bully you,î she says on her way out. ìYou have a perfect right to get a receipt in the post office.î ìShhh! Mrs. Ompala.î Excerpted from Heavenly Days by James Wilcox All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.