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What You Have Left by Will Allison

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Collects many of South Carolina's idiosyncracies -- video poker, Confederate flag atop the State House, NASCAR hobby drivers -- and puts them to good use.

What You Have Left

Publisher: Free Press
ISBN: 141654139X
Author: Will Allison
Price: $23.00
Length: 224
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-06

Will Allison's What You Have Left collects many of South Carolina's idiosyncracies -- video poker, Confederate flag atop the State House, NASCAR hobby drivers -- and puts them to good use.

Allison, born in Columbia, S.C., sets his first novel in the capital city. The first paragraph wastes no words or time:

I was sentenced to life on my grandfather's dairy farm in the summer of 1976. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, a month or so until my mother recovered from her water-skiing accident, but after one week, on the first day she was able to get out of her hospital bed and walk, a blood clot traveled up from her leg, blocked the vessels to her lungs, and killed her. My father had been the one driving the boat, the one who steered too close to the dock. Three days after the funeral, he walked out of the insurance agency where he worked and wasn't heard from again.

Holly, the child left behind, is speaking. She's a sophomore at the University of South Carolina but still close to Cal, the dairy-farmer grandfather who raised her. Cal is considering suicide, and Holly has taken away a stash of his pills. Cal wants to sidestep his father's fate: helplessness and confinement from Alzheimer's.

These are people endearing in their attempts to deal with the troubles they often create, then heighten.

Organized in eight chapters, touching on a span of 37 years, the book moves back and forth among characters and moments and first- and third-person narration in a nonlinear, patchwork fashion.

Before Holly's birth, Maddy races in the hobby division of NASCAR. The men taunt their only female competitor before races, draping a jockstrap over her steering wheel, and collaborate during races to knock her out.

Wylie, the disappearing father, backs up Maddy, whether tuning up the Ford Fairlane or handling two jobs and "business as usual -- distraught wife, crying baby." After Maddy's death, Wylie hits the road to drink himself into oblivion. He sends money for Holly's support, calls to hear Holly's voice -- but does not return.

When Holly is left behind, Cal prunes the chinaberry tree so she can't climb down and run away. He sleeps with the dead bolt keys around his neck: "I was comforted by the thought he wanted to keep me close, that I was too precious to be let go," she says.

Lyle meets Holly while remodeling Cal's house and marries her soon after Cal's death. He locates Wylie, then lies about it. When a liquored-up Holly zooms past a state trooper on her way to confront her long-lost father, Lyle steps in to make amends.

"I press my car keys into her hand. ... The last thing I do before I walk through that door is close her fingers around the diamond ring. ... The troopers are barricaded behind their cars, calling for the driver of the Plymouth to come out of the building with his hands up, so that's what I do."

Later, Holly watches Lyle scale the State House dome (as a construction worker actually did) to remove and burn the Confederate flag. He loses his job but wins a bet, and the two "invest" the paper bag of bills by playing video poker -- the machines owned by Lyle's father.

The strength of Allison's writing lies in his ability to convey his characters' weaknesses without undue analyzing: Wylie's drinking, Holly's video-poker addiction, Lyle's rationalizations.

Allison's strength also lies in his ability to convey, in a delicate and kind manner, his characters' goodness, conveyed through the particulars that teach the universal: small and daily good deeds, the difficult love of couples and parents, the tricky negotiations among generations.

He manages at the book's beginning and end to make a truism -- lousy parents can make great grandparents -- believably sweet and uplifting.

But the book could have been better. Portions have appeared in a variety of fine literary magazines since 2002, and it's a shame Allison didn't deepen, layer and develop his material into the more complicated novel he could have produced. Instead, he gives us what is really a linked story collection.

Allison, who left Columbia while in high school, lives in New Jersey. He has taught creative writing and worked as executive editor of "Story."

His descriptions of '70s South Carolina are sharp and true. Attentive readers can, as they move forward and backward in time, link Holly's drinking, smoking and reckless driving to her family's genetic and emotional past. They can figure out later that Lyle spent 30 days in jail for love of Holly. They can forgive Wylie before Holly does.

It's OK to make readers do that work, and nonlinear narratives can offer subtleties (and reflections of reality) that an A-to-Z march won't. This remains a good book. But just as readers will feel both a sense of loss and gain as they follow Wylie's redemption, so they will feel a sense of loss and gain as they finish a good book that could have been even better.

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