Review of Fountains of Youth by Stephen Ausherman
It's easy for a reader to take a wrong turn as he or she approaches Stephen Ausherman's new novel, Fountains of Youth. But reading through the novel might be like returning to a small, familiar town you knew years ago—the roads and basic landmarks are the same, but there's been a lot of development and the details are all different.
The book's narrator and protagonist, Cyrus Slant, seems initially to be a character that we've met before, inhabiting a place that we've seen a few too many times in the dusty environs of so-called "southern literature." He is a case of arrested development: a young man (but not quite as young as he seems) raised without exactly knowing who his father is, whose mother died when he was still young and impressionable. He lives in and works for the Dixie Court Hotel, in "Stillwater County" in North Carolina, not far from one small town named "Odium" and another called "Hunters." Stillwater County also comes complete with a mysterious swamp, an aged black seer, a haunted house (with its own bottle tree for capturing the rambunctious ha'nts), a mysterious, rebellious vanished Native American named Quiet Bear (purportedly a Gingaskin Indian), and a wandering idiot manchild (to borrow a riff by the Coen Brothers on Faulkner in Barton Fink) who is tolerated affectionately by the community and who likes to paint everything yellow.
Put this way, every cliché in the regionalist book seems to rear its ugly head. It's only a matter of time before Otis checks himself into the jail to sleep off a drunk, before some Snopes shows up wanting to sleep with his sister (or even worse, your sister), and before long people will be digging up the yard for gold on this side of the street while Confederate ghosts thunder down the lane in a duststorm of butternut and gray.
Thankfully, however, the sum of the parts in Fountains of Youth are greatly outweighed by its whole; Ausherman makes use of the more familiar and treadworn characteristics of southern fiction largely to subvert homespun myths and to comment on the very act of myth-making. The Dixie Court Motel, for example, rather than being owned by Compsons or Snopes or characters named Big Daddy or Stella Rondo, is owed and operated by Indian immigrant Amitabh Patil, who has helped raise Cyrus alongside his daughters Mina, Arati, and Cyrus' secret love, the beautiful and absent Sonali.
Cyrus has been raised to think that his father is most likely either the famous journalist and raconteur Lester Current (a kind of self-mythologizing cross between a later day H.L. Mencken and Tom Wolfe), or just possibly the local legend, the rebellious, mysterious, and absent Quiet Bear. Obsessed with Current, Cyrus has read everything the man has ever written and even has begun composing his own brief articles in the manner of Current about his own friends, family and Stillwater County. When Current returns to Stillwater County to confront the demons of his youth and checks into the Dixie Court Motel, Cyrus, in turn, is able to confront the legend of his maybe-father in the flesh. The man, as so often seems to be the case, doesn't quite live up to the legend. When Cyrus asks him whether he'd actually hunted moose with concussion grenades and held a dying Israeli soldier in his arms, Current tells Cyrus that he has "Applied my poetic license. Took some liberties with Madam Hyperbole." When Cyrus asks how many embellishments have been made, Current first tells him, "just a few details here and there," but finally admits, "They sure add up fast over a lifetime."
Ultimately, the reader realizes that many of the novel's themes intersect in Lester Current, and that the writer is in some ways more of a symbol than a character. This is a novel about fathers: the father that Cyrus thinks either Lester or Quiet Bear would be, on the one hand, and his surrogate fathers in Patil and Moses Jefferson (the blind African American psychic) on the other. Too, this is a novel about legends and myths, and the way we use stories and folklore to create meaning and instill order on the chaos that surrounds our lives. Even as Cyrus puts to rest some of his own questions about his legacy and his past, he weaves new tales.
Ausherman takes chances in Fountains of Youth. So many novels set in the south get so mired in the swamplands of formula and familiar tropes that making use of those commonplace formulations in even postmodern, subversive ways risks snap judgments on the parts of readers wearied by the familiar. The romantic triangle between Cyrus and two of the Patil sisters seems a bit obvious although the end of the novel takes some turns that no one will see coming. And some of the articles by Current and Cyrus inserted in the text throughout the novel tend to get a little tedious and to slow the narrative's momentum. But through it all, Cyrus is an engaging, likeable, and interesting narrator, and Ausherman paints secondary characters like Patil, his daughter Mina, and Moses Jefferson in subtle shades that reflect the full range of their humanity.
Fountains of Youth by Stephen Ausherman
Livingston Press, ISBN: hardback 1-931982-55-4 ($25.00); paperback 1-931982-56-2 ($14.95)