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Picking up a Should-Be Classic: Off for the Sweet Hereafter by T.R. Pearson

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Sarah has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and works as a manager of communications for a multinational risk management company.

Off For the Sweet Hereafter by T.R. Pearson

Ballantine Books; 1987

Paperback; Fiction

339 pages; $4.50

United States of America

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Every story is worthy of being told if it is told the right way, and T.R. Pearson found the most precise way to tell the story of Jane Elizabeth Firesheets and Benton Lynch in Off for the Sweet Hereafter. Off for the Sweet Hereafter contains a narrative that relies on the musicality of its narrator’s voice, a musicality that is impossible to ignore and makes the whole roundabout tale completely worth the ride.

Often compared to William Faulkner and Mark Twain, Southern writer T.R. Pearson is a master storyteller. Immaculate in its voice and wit, his second novel slowly relays the evolution of a pair of otherwise average country bumpkins who turn into killers. The novel, which famously opens with a sentence that is 400 words long, begins with a 21-page mission to clean the gutters on essentially irrelevant Mrs. Askew’s house during “the summer we lost the bald Jeeter.” These events, fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, serve as a prototype for the rest of the stories within the story and ease the reader into the world and ways of the townspeople in Neely, North Carolina. By the time the novel arrives at an actual plot, the reader has spent so long immersed in the world of Neely that it begins to make music of its own. The town comes alive and seems to actually operate on the cadence the narrator presents.

Enjoyment of Off for the Sweet Hereafter requires the reader to make a decision. If someone reads for plot or action, plot or action is not what they will get. But reading for the prose and to be transported to another place and time to hang out with another type of people is an agreeable and downright fun experience. The narration has a particularly Southern I-said-all-that-to-say-all-this quality, a quality that blooms in stories steeped in back stories and front stories and side stories that arise when a group of people have been operating as a group for longer than anyone can actually recall, and a reader who accepts that early on will be rewarded.

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Once the reader settles into Pearson’s meandering style, he or she can go along for the ride and follow Benton Lynch through his short stint as a gravedigger which leads him ultimately to commit murder. The job is with a man who moves bodies from graves so that developers can come through and build on the land. During that job, he meets Jane Elizabeth Firesheets, who is taken with him for some reason despite his “tall, lean, pointy, hollowed out, angular, and otherwise unremarkable” appearance, and a fateful relationship develops between them that starts like this:

“After supper the sister Firesheets (Jane Elizabeth) took Benton Lynch around the house and showed him the bric-a-brac, especially her personal and private collection of it in her own personal and private bedroom and in addition she reclined herself full around the bed, laid her tongue out one corner of her mouth, and showed Benton Lynch a thing or two that was not specifically in the line of bric-a-brac but proved interesting nonetheless.”

Jane Elizabeth later develops a relationship with rebel deadbeat Jimmy who ends up essentially out of the picture. Prior to Jimmy’s dismissal from the story, Benton gets jealous and does what could be labeled as “falls for” Jane Elizabeth as a result. He starts making choices because of what he wants her to do in response to him (mainly have sex with him and not Jimmy) and thusly enters into a life of crime. In other words, the plot of “Off for the Sweet Hereafter” is actually very simple. Boy meets girl. Girl meets other boy. Boy gets jealous and does things that are detrimental to his well-being and bad things happen to him. That’s the plot of the story. But that part of the narrative does not even start until past halfway through the novel; the first half being spent telling the reader all about everybody’s family. Not just Jane Elizabeth Firesheets’s and Benton Lynch’s families, everybody’s families. Most of the novel is used to set up the backgrounds of the people affected by the later actions of the couple, but the voice and rhythm of the piece can carry the reader through all of the little nitpicky details about the huge cast of otherwise trivial characters.

The driving beat of the story starts on page one and does not ever even begin to let up. Without that consistency, the story might not have any meaning. Without the tone and rhythm, the story would be dark and gritty and probably unremarkable due to its unremarkable characters with very little depth or reflective ability. Each paragraph demands the reader’s rapt attention in order to follow the mostly comma-less syntax and pick out the story along the way.

Telling the story this way has its disadvantages. The deaths are cartoonish and inconsequential and the plights of the characters do not garner a sympathetic audience. The occurrences and their consequences do not come across as particularly harrowing, nor do any of the characters demand much more attention than any of the others. The reader spends just as much time learning about random Mrs. Askew as he or she does learning about Benton Lynch. Pearson sets forth entire family histories and allows the reader to understand the character with passages like:

“In the Buffaloe household, time was when opinions had been a thing peculiar to Mr. Buffaloe like his high forehead or his brown front tooth, and when he would lay the tines of his fork on the lip of his plate and dab at his mouth with his napkin and then deliver himself of a viewpoint, Mrs. Buffaloe generally agreed with him straight off and the children, who likely had not been listening anyhow, would not comment and so there was an end to the matter. But when the children grew up and their mouths grew up with the rest of them, and their attention span drew out some and they became opinionated, or what Mr. Buffaloe considered counter-opinionated since he did not seem to look at anything from one side that they did not see from the other.”

The story, overall, is very sad. None of the characters are made better for the things that go on, and no one ever gets what’s coming to them. Regardless, the characters and place are memorable and the back stories are somehow important and lively. Seemingly extraneous details in Off for the Sweet Hereafter often take on a life of their own. Many details come directly back into play, such as the sheriff’s living arrangement, which is described in the first half of the book and never mentioned again until it shows itself in the very last paragraph. Its placement there achieves a particular mood, seemingly the only mood appropriate to end the rambling story. This is consistent throughout the story: details popping up all throughout the story and then popping up again and taking on a new life. The unimportant moments of the story are made important by the way the story’s told.

Pearson chose to envelope the story in humor and music, and it is that humor and music that makes it what it is. The rhythm and wit seem organic, unplanned, necessary. Pearson achieves in Off for the Sweet Hereafter what every novelist should try to achieve. It is as if it is a story told in its purity on the first try.

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