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Southern Discomforts
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext) - Washington, D.C.
Author: Paterson, Judith
Date: Jul 10, 1988
Start Page: x.08
Section: BOOK WORLD

AS THE author of five earlier novels and a volume of short stories, [Ellen Douglas] (a pen name for Josephine Haxton), is the old pro among the writers of this summer's batch of first-rate Southern novels. Her experience shows in every word of Can't Quit You, Baby, a tour de force of language and narrative in which the storyteller plays the role of a self-deprecating narrator wrestling with the limitations of her own background in an effort to do justice to the parallel lives of Cornelia O'Kelly, an upper-class Mississippi white woman, and her black housekeeper, Julia "Tweet" Carrier.

[Tweet] speaks in rural black English thick with irony, double entendre and cynicism. Cornelia's flat-footed response in white Southern English almost always misses the point. The artistry of the book lies in the brilliance with which Douglas stirs the nuances of the two dialects into a rich and witty stew of mixed messages. Out of the mixture, she spins a lively domestic drama as Cornelia's life collapses and she and Tweet both face tragedy.

Standing right there in his own back yard, grappling with his Type-A personality the way he always does, Swain Hammond hears the voice of God speaking to him personally. Two weeks later, a child in Swain's congregation is blinded in an accident that implicates both Swain and his alcoholic parishioner, Sam Bagdikian. Acting on a hunch that comes with the first stirring of a new maturity and a new spirituality, Swain tries-rather comically-to perform a miracle of healing on the blind 12-year-old boy. Driven by [Peggy Payne]'s substantial ability to spin a yarn, the action unfurls at a rapid clip. Finally, though, you have to decide for yourself whether Swain is really hearing the voice of God or just having a John-Updike-style midlife crisis.

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