Books of the Times

Review of Familiar Ground By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
The New York Times, December 6, 1984

AT the beginning of Elizabeth Cox's astonishing first novel, "Familiar Ground," a man named Jacob is riding a train from Virginia to Sweetwater, Tenn., his childhood home. He has been summoned there by a letter from an aged woman hinting that she is finally ready to clear up certain mysteries from Jacob's past. As the train rumbles along, we are lulled by the spareness of the prose - as well as by a charming friendship that Jacob strikes up with a young fellow- passenger on the train - into thinking that "Familiar Ground" will be a simple, gentle story of reconciliation. We are right as far as the reconciliation is concerned. But the story is far from gentle. By the time Jacob rides the train home two months later, he has experienced, directly or indirectly, more violence than would belong even in a Jacobean tragedy. He has had a hunting accident that has cost him parts of three fingers, and he has seen a circus elephant kill a man and get incinerated in a boxcar. He has recalled several shootings, a poisoning, a rape, a drowning and another circus accident. And he has learned who really caused the death of his beloved older brother in an incident for which he has always blamed himself.

Nor is the reconciliation simple. At the novel's climactic moment, when Jacob realizes during a funeral service why "each man abhors himself, or else must learn to love those he has failed to love," it is not just his brother he has in mind. "Something was passed down," he reflects. "A legacy, perhaps." Something from "the time of the Civil War, a commonplace killing of brothers. Or passed from Cain and Abel, borne through thousands of years, the burden immigrating from other lands."

Yet despite the violence and complexity of the story, what we recall most vividly of "Familiar Ground" are its tiny, seemingly innocuous details, such as the off-key playing of the organ at that funeral, which made the children cover their mouths and giggle, or a cigar band that Jacob treasures as the best thing he ever got from his alcoholic father, or "the regular size egg" that Jacob's sister put in the kitchen of her doll house, bizarrely dwarfing all the other objects there, including "the parent figures" who sit at a tiny table.

It is these little symbols of vulnerability that touch us most deeply in "Familiar Ground." The violence, muted by the matter-of-factness of the novel's prose, is simply part of the scenery. Thus does Elizabeth Cox - from Chattanooga, Tenn., by way of Durham, N.C., where she now lives - ring yet another set of changes on the Southern Gothic scene. She has taken some ambitious risks here, with her endlessly coiling plot, her free-floating narrative point of view, her tamed version of William Faulkner's idiot, and her slightly forced references to the legend of Gilgamesh. But she has won her gambles often enough to make "Familiar Ground" a work of startling originality.

© The New York Times, 1984