Native authors her 3rd; Racial element figures in novel

Review of Night Talk By Ben Steelman
The Chattanooga Times, February 19, 1998

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Elizabeth Cox was a literary late bloomer; her first poems didn't start to appear in little magazines until 1975, more than a decade after she graduated from the University of Mississippi.

Yet she's made up for lost time fast, with three highly regarded novels: Familiar Ground, The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love and her most recent, Night Talk (Graywolf Press, $23.95).

The Chattanooga native lives in Durham, N.C., where she teaches for one semester each year at Duke University -- and the action in all of her novels take place in states of the old Confederacy. But she feels constrained by the label of "Southern" writer.

"My books are set in the South," she said in a recent telephone interview, "but mostly discuss human problems. Night Talk deals with intolerance, but human intolerance, not just racial intolerance -- and it's about forgiveness, too."

In Night Talk, the setting is the symbolically named town of Mercy, Ga., not too far from Milledgeville, between the summer of 1949 and the late '70s. The action follows two little girls, white Evie and black Janey Louise, who grow up in the same house; Janey's mother works as a housekeeper-companion for Evie's mother, whose marriage has just broken up.

Both girls are united, in a way, by loss; Evie misses her father, a gentle biologist; Janey misses her brother, Albert, who's off fighting in Korea.

The novel's plot will remind some readers, inevitably, of To Kill a Mockingbird, with small-town childhood adventures punctuated by encounters with the ugly side of segregation. Night Talk climaxes with not one but two racially charged trials.

Yet its conclusion is considerably bleaker than Harper Lee's 1960 perspective. "The white girl never really understands what her friend has to deal with," Cox said.

The two women remain friends into adulthood, but a barrier remains between them. As the novel closes, it is unclear whether their daughters will ever connect across racial lines.

Ms. Cox earned her master's degree in writing in 1979 from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she studied under Fred Chappell, the state's new poet laureate -- "the best teacher I ever had," she recalled. "He taught me about imagination, about looking at a story with a tough eye."

Ironically, the poet laureate led her from poetry into prose fiction: Her Third of July was an O. Henry Award winner, and her Land of Goshen won both the Pushcart Prize and inclusion in The Best American Short Stories for 1980.

Now, she's at work on a new novel, set in her native Tennessee: "I don't know what it's about yet," she said. "Usually, I immerse myself in characters, situations, and eventually, it grabs me."

When not teaching at Duke, she now lives part of each year in Littleton, Mass.

"I do notice a difference in the humor," she said. "In the North, jokes are quick, intellectual, with a lot of wordplay. In the South, humor is built on stories, and it's very inclusive -- one person will say something, and another will add something on."

© The Chattanooga Times, 1998