Flying Shoes by Lisa Howorth
Published by Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: June 17th 2014
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In spite of the rest of the world’s perception, small southern towns knew how to tolerate difference. There was always an old queer or old lesbian couple, or a Boo Radley in town. You just had to not be from away, and stay within in the unspoken boundaries, and you would have grown up knowing what those were.
Mary Byrd Thornton is the beleaguered, snarky protagonist in Lisa Howorth’s debut novel Flying Shoes. As the novel opens she is contacted by a detective in Richmond that the unsolved murder of her stepbrother in 1969 is being reopened. As if this is not enough unsettling news, he tells her that she and her family need to assemble in Richmond by Monday (two days away) to hear previously unknown details. For Mary this prospect is unpleasant on many levels—flying, pending ice storms, and seeing her mother. Then there is the fact that she has always been a little uncertain about her role in Stevie’s death. Not involved, but in a John Hinkley-Jodie Foster way, with an odd boy who lived on their street and who manufactured a letter to her postdated to make it look like he was out of town on the night her brother was killed.
Mary Byrd is a fabulous amalgam of every woman. She has two teenage kids to drive her batty, a husband who, while loving, is a workaholic and an ever-changing list of fifty things that she should get done but can’t muster the energy to do. Her love of all things small means that her house is crammed with collections of tiny items of detritus found in truck stop gift shops, yard sales, and cheap catalogs. In the same way, Howorth crams this quirky novel with characters that are touching and hilarious. There are real life issues and they’re being lived by some of the most eccentric characters the South has ever produced, from Mary Byrd’s housekeeper Evagreen, who messes with Mary Byrd’s mind at the same time as she cleans her house to Teever Barr, a homeless handy-man who does odd jobs for her while also acting as her drinking buddy at a local tavern. Then there is Mary Byrd’s pill supplier, Jack Ernest, who also hopes to tempt her into an affair—a scenario to which she’s not completely adverse but has never acted upon.
Flying Shoes has the same compulsively readable Southern humor as one of my favorite novels from last year Lookaway, Lookaway but underneath the mordant wit there are the less-than-pleasant realities of Mary Byrd’s life and the life of those around her. Evagreen’s daughter has just murdered her husband, Teever has managed to slice open his foot and refuses to get medical treatment, and Jack heads out onto the roads the night of the ice storm to attend a party he thinks will finally bring him and Mary Byrd together. All this while Mary Byrd is being driven from Mississippi to Richmond in a frozen chicken parts truck because she refuses to fly.
Howorth amasses Flying Shoes with the same thoughtfulness and affection that Mary Byrd uses to assemble her teeny tiny collections of tchotchkes. One can feel the care and tenderness she puts into each and every detail of the novel. Family histories are compiled in intimate (and hilarious) detail and the bad behavior everyone thinks they’re hiding is known by all. After Mary Byrd learns the painful truth about her stepbrother’s death and the fact that there will never be justice she straps on her big-girl boots and heads home to the one place where there is sense amongst the chaos. Thanks to Howorth’s perceptive, humorous, and loving portrayal of a woman we can all recognize we’re right there with her, wishing her all the best.