[6 January 2011]
Robert Hellenga’s sixth novel, Snakewoman of Little Egypt, offers up an tasty blend of romance, suspense, courtroom drama and anthropological study. It’s an unlikely mix that manages to coalesce into a successful, engaging story that works well on numerous levels.
Jackson Jones is an anthropology professor at a small Illinois university. He has reached his 40th birthday and is in something of a midlife muddle: his most important field work is some years behind him, and he now faces the choice of whether to return to central Africa and the Mbuti tribe he has studied, or to settle into the stolid, respectable middle age of an established academic.
Each choice has its appeal, but the African venture is more fraught. This is both because his research takes him into the unstable Republic of Congo, which cycles through perpetual states of civil war and uneasy truce, and because of Jackson’s romantic and sexual liaisons with the Mbuti, which have left him as a husband and father within the tribe. Rather than destroying his academic reputation as an impartial observor, these liaisons are a big part of his popular appeal and notoriety.
Jackson, then, is a contradictory character from the outset, a man whose sexual involvement with the culture he studies rests uneasily with the reader. Jackson’s life becomes more complicated still with the arrival of Sunny, the niece of a now-deceased acquaintance, who for various reasons winds up renting a small apartment over Jackson’s garage. Sunny is another complicated character—a kindhearted woman, interested in French and cooking, who has spent six years locked up for shooting (but not killing) her husband, an allegedly abusive pastor in a home-grown Christian snake-handling sect, the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following.
All this makes the setup sound like something out of Flannery O’Connor, crazy church names and all, but Hellenga avoids the exaggerated trappings of Southern gothic—or any kind of gothic—and brings a steely realism to the proceedings. Scenes are grounded in incremental doses of realistic detail and ordinary conversation as, over time, the relationship between Jackson and Sunny deepens. Jackson carries on with the daily business of being an academic as Sunny struggles to turn her life around, enroll in the school where Jones teaches, get to know her professors and distance herself from her ex-husband Earl.
That ex-husband has other ideas, though. Earl sees divorce as a sin and wants Sunny back where she belongs—with him. To that end, he puts pressure on Jackson, who finds himself increasingly intrigued by the anthropological aspects of Earl’s church. Despite Sunny’s protests, Jackson gets more and more involved in the Church of the Burning Bush’s arcane rituals and snake-handling exercises. Sunny, who knows a thing or two about snakes and even begins to study them alongside her college biology professor, suspects that little good can come of this. She is right.
These disparate threads intertwine and grow increasingly complex as the novel lurches toward its conclusion, a 35-page courtroom scene that is as fraught with tension as anything else in the book. The fallout from that scene manages to resolve the relevant questions while avoiding patness or oversimplification. Oh and Jackson finally makes his midlife decision.
Hellenga handles all these plot elements, and a few others besides, with admirable adroitness. His language is plain for the most part, eschewing ornate metaphors or landslides of adjectives in favor of simple, declarative prose. “It was a Saturday morning in February, three weeks into the semester. Jackson’s NIH proposal was due in one week. He and Sunny were sitting at the library table, piles of books between them.” The plainness of the language, intentionally or not, serves to mirror the flatness of Jackson’s own academic voice.
What saves this from being deadly for the reader are the chapters told from Sunny’s first-person point of view, which occur frequently although not according to any discernible pattern. She carries more than half of the story, including the climactic chapters, and her snappy, sassy voice more than makes up for Jackson’s reserve. “All my life I’d been taught not to handle a serpent unless it had been prayed over, and unless I was anointed with the Spirit,” she tells us early on, while recounting a snake-catching adventure in the prison cafeteria. “Well, this serpent hadn’t been prayed over, and I sure as hell hadn’t been anointed with the Spirit. I was done with the Spirit, in fact, and I was pretty sure the Spirit was done with me.”
Hellenga manages to juggles these voices as adeptly as he handles the plot threads. Snakewoman of Little Egypt is not a book that will dazzle you with verbal pyrotechnics or snare you with belly laughs. It’s something of a slow burn: a story that compels through the honest, unvarnished interaction of its characters.