WRITING WELL MIGHT NOT BE the most difficult challenge a novelist faces in this media-saturated age. Writers who persevere through the creative process and run the gauntlet of editors and publishers then face the Sisyphean task of attracting the attention of readers and reviewers in a crowded field. The statistics are daunting: At least 50,000 books are published in the United States every year. Even a prolific reader—let’s say 4 books a week—will read slightly more than 200 books a year. That barely skims the surface of the available reading pool. Yes, Texas has its brand-name novelists—the David Lindseys and Cormac McCarthys and Larry McMurtrys. But there is no lack of authors here who have been undeservedly lost in the glut of titles and unable—so far, at least—to break through to a larger audience.
In the bookselling marketplace, Austinite Kathy Hepinstall has the kind of reader-friendly appeal that just might result in a big commercial splash. She is a gifted writer whose first two novels—The House of Gentle Men and The Absence of Nectar—deliver great entertainment value, courtesy of their off-kilter story lines and devious plotting. An advertising copywriter by day, the 37-year-old Hepinstall is refreshingly pragmatic about the uneasy relationship between the creative and commercial aspects of the book world. She’s not above silly-but-effective stunts: To promote her first novel, she enlisted college students to read it at select bookstores with the cover clearly visible to passersby.
The Absence of Nectar, published by Putnam last September, tells the tale of twelve-year-old Alice Fendar and her fourteen-year-old brother, Boone, who suspect, with good reason, that their mother’s new boyfriend, Simon, is trying to poison them. Unable to convince their mother, Meg, of his plans, the kids take the only recourse left to them: They run. The story of how the daily life of an ordinary, albeit dysfunctional, family devolves into a nightmare is unnerving and positively Hitchcockian. Hepinstall’s taut prose measures out the horrors in cautious doses, slowly ratcheting up the tension.
Despite the book’s high creep factor, Hepinstall writes with a playful voice; her characters are magnificently imperfect. Numbhead, the family dog, gently totes a live toad in his mouth everywhere he goes. Dim-witted Simon preaches the gospel, proclaiming himself “God’s megaphone.” Alice sacrifices childish totems to a magical bush, trying to snap Meg out of the depression she slid into when her first husband departed.
The Absence of Nectar will be out in paperback this month, and Hepinstall’s next novel, Prince of Lost Places—in which a mother and child escape a tragedy in Ohio by hiding out in a cave in Big Bend—will hit the bookstores in January. She will then plunge into the world of thriller-diller fiction with a suspense-genre series featuring Shad Marler, whom she describes as a “philosophizing redneck from Fredericksburg, Virginia.”
Meanwhile, out in the West Texas town of El Paso, former criminal defense lawyer John Gates labors by day as an assistant city attorney. In what passes for spare time, the 55-year-old Vietnam vet is polishing up Decent Men, the third book in his Brigham Bybee suspense series. Left out in the cold when Walker and Company phased out its mystery-fiction line, Gates and his agent are trying to line up a publisher for a fall release.
Gates, who has lived in Texas since the fifties, drew heavily on his Utah roots in creating Brig Bybee: The unemployed (and perhaps unemployable) attorney is a fallen Mormon trying to reassemble the shards of a life exploded by alcohol and anger, but mayhem and mystery invariably interrupt his personal journey. The second novel in the series, Sister Wife, found Bybee trying to acquire a sense of place and belonging by buying the Piute Villa, an “odd, decaying tepee motel on the outskirts of Kanab, Utah,” that he shares with the property’s skittish canine resident, a “quiet yellow-eyed thing with a broken tail” named Spooky Floyd. His short-lived retreat is interrupted when Mercy, one of the wives of a polygamist (a “plig,” in the glib shorthand of Utahans more accustomed to this practice than the rest of us), arrives on his doorstep. Mercy is bruised, bloodied, hysterical, and eager to spill the beans about beatings and killings on her husband’s ranch. Per the unwritten law of contemporary mystery fiction, Brig Bybee’s moral code demands that he try to set things straight.
Despite Gates’ standing in the State Bar, his books will never be confused with boilerplate courtroom procedurals. Sister Wife and the first Bybee novel, Brigham’s Day, are dark and richly textured, more George P. Pelecanos than Scott Turow. Gates is a fine storyteller who makes us care about Brig Bybee and his acquaintances, and it’s a bonus when he invokes the bloody and bizarre history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Like Gates, Darryl Wimberley is a longtime Texan who sets a mystery-suspense series in the state of his birth—in this case, Florida. Wimberley’s Barrett Raines novels (most recently Strawman’s Hammock) are rollicking and intelligent, everything you could ask from the genre. Detective Barrett “Bear” Raines is engagingly human and doggedly honest in a world that doesn’t always prize that virtue. He’s a black cop operating on the Florida coast whose exploits reveal a world of personal and professional conflicts that your average white reader would otherwise never pause to consider. Wimberley has an open-ended deal with St. Martin’s Press on the Raines series, and the fourth installment—Pepperfish Keys—is under way.
But Austinite Wimberley, at age 52 a seasoned professional, doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a writer of serial detective stories. His 2000 literary novel from MacMurray and Beck, A Tinker’s Damn, is a gem of a book set in forties Florida that evokes classic themes of conflict among generations, classes, and races. Against a backdrop of primitive swamplands where old-growth timber is harvested and wood spirits are processed, Wimberley masterfully transforms brute labor and brutal workplaces—sawmills, logging sites, and turpentine camps—into something exotic. The passage of time adds a patina of romance to a decidedly unromantic world. A Tinker’s Damn is wholly original but, with its depiction of a Southern town on edge, contains echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird.
His follow-up novel, provocatively titled The King of Colored Town, advances the same setting (and some characters) twenty years forward to the sixties. Wimberley came of age as a white man in a racially charged state, and he revisits the social divide between black and white in the story of Cilla Handsom, a black woman raised in a segregated world who is facing the challenges of adulthood in an integrated Florida. The completed manuscript is being shopped to editors.
Compared with Wimberley’s frenetic pace, Houston novelist Mylène Dressler’s is remarkably measured. Nearly four years elapsed between her first book, 1997’s The Medusa Tree, and her second, The Deadwood Beetle. True to form, her next effort, set in Texas and tentatively titled The Floodmaker, will be published in fall 2003 or spring 2004 by BlueHen Books.
The Deadwood Beetle is due out in paperback next month. It is the story of retired New York entomologist Tristan Martens, who discovers his Dutch mother’s rustic sewing table in a high-dollar Manhattan antiques shop, conspicuously out of place among the fine furnishings. With firsthand (and mysteriously shameful) knowledge about the cryptic message scrawled on its underside in a childish hand—”When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones”—he determines to reclaim the table by deceit.
Guilt and history conspire against Martens’ hopes for an uneventful retirement after a somewhat messy life. He is divorced from his wife of thirty years and noisily despised by his fanatical fundamentalist son, who blasts him with screeds about the “Godlessness and faithlessness” of the household in which he was raised. But Martens finds hope in his unlikely infatuation with Cora Lowenstein, the shop’s elegant proprietor. Emotionally wracked by the tug-of-war between past despair and the prospect of future forgiveness, he seizes the near-miraculous opportunity to perhaps do one right thing in his life.
Dressler, a 39-year-old native of the Netherlands, writes with precision and grace as she weaves an intimate portrait of Martens—and surprises us when she unveils a well-concealed mystery. She is expert at revealing the internal. The Deadwood Beetle probes the psyche of a cold man who has remained at an emotional arm’s length from his colleagues, his students, and his family. It’s not by accident that he’s an entomologist: Dead bugs don’t need love.
Hepinstall, Gates, Wimberley, Dressler—any Texas bookseller or critic could easily add a dozen names to this short list of underappreciated writers who deserve to catch a break. The careers of these four novelists are still relatively young, and their upcoming releases are promising. Perseverance has served them well, and wider audiences are surely on the horizon.