In his wonderful novel, Billy in the Lowground, Sumner Wilson snagged me in his opening lines, and narrator Scotlin, an aspiring fisherman, kept me dangling on his pole until the end.
Sumner Wilson is a writer’s writer. Why do I say that? If you love metaphor, compelling sentence rhythms, a sensitivity to language, and an author who captures regional vernacular, in this case southern, then you’ll understand what I mean.
I could give examples of original comparisons from every page of the book, but here are a couple. On page 10, the narrator says, “The owl across the river carried on with its laughter. Suddenly it broke off in the middle of a laugh, barked loud, and coughed like a hound in a desperate attempt to dislodge a chicken bone lodged deep in its throat.” When I read this passage, I not only was placed directly in this scene, but I also could visualize exactly what the narrator was experiencing.
Here is another brilliant moment: “The weight and feel of the power and vitality of a hooked fish thrilled me to the bottoms of my bare feet. A fish fought its imprisonment in a life struggle, which was tragedy in its purest form. The water roiled up in a pale white mist in the special soft pastel light that comes with early morning, the likes of which you never see at any other time during the day. Those jewels of beaded water burst from the taught fishing line like birdshot, with the line itself nearly at the breaking point, during the barefaced heat of battle” (52). Wilson could have been describing the struggles that any of us experience at some point in our lives. We don’t have to be a fish caught on some fisherman’s hook to know this. But the awareness and intensity that we bring to each moment is what makes the struggle worthwhile.
What I loved most about Wilson’s work is the world he reconstitutes. The young people don’t have smart phones or computers to distract them. Their pleasures come from direct interaction with nature and each other. Having spent several essential years as a child on a farm, I fully resonated with the environment that Wilson recreates here. All of the values about work, community, life, and death, I learned on the farm. But most young people today have never had this experience. Nor have many adults.
But you can if you read this book. Billy in the Lowground is a novel that not only transcends the current technology traps we’re all mired in, but returns us to some of the basic values that define us not only as Americans but also as humans.