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Originally published Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'Three Delays': A blissfully wayward tale of impossible love, South Florida version

Georgia-born Charlie Smith's "Three Delays" is a welcome return to the novel form by an author some critics rank among the top contemporary Southern writers.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Three Delays'

by Charlie Smith

HarperPerennial, 352 pp., $14.99

Here's something I thought I'd never see again: a new novel by Charlie Smith.

For my money, Georgia-born Smith, author of "Shine Hawk" and "Chimney Rock," and winner of the Paris Review's Aga Khan Prize for his novella "Crystal River," is the top-ranking Southern novelist of the last several decades, alongside T.R. Pearson. But it's been 14 years since his last novel, "Cheap Ticket to Heaven," came out. And while he has published several volumes of verse since then — including one baldly titled "Heroin and Other Poems" — it seemed his stamina for creating symphony-sized fiction might have sputtered out.

Not so.

"Three Delays" is as deliciously willful and wayward, as ecstatic and extravagant, as anything Smith has ever done. Its tale of impossible love between two impossible characters is filled with a rich, sinister humor and every kind of psycho-romantic wrinkle. Not since poor F. Scott Fitzgerald drew his indelible portraits of the even more troubled Zelda has American fiction been blessed — or maybe cursed — by lovers who are simultaneously so right and so wrong for each other.

Alice Stephens, the object of former boy-preacher Billy Brent's obsession since age 6, is "just a cracker from West Miami, cleaned-up version," like Billy himself.

Both of them are — at various phases in their decades-long on-and-off love affair/estrangement/marriage — drug-addled and hyperbole-prone.

As its title may suggest, the novel is driven less by linear plot than by continual, volatile vacillations in Billy and Alice's soul connection. Bearing witness to their tempests is their gay friend Henry Devine, "an ex-Green Beret medic who'd been shipped loco out of Vietnam," who lovingly counsels them through each crisis.

Still, it's through Billy's voice — wily, seductive, manipulative — that we see all the action. Alice, through the book's first half, goes in and out of focus. She's not quite a cipher, for Smith is uncanny at alighting on the ties of the mind, gut and heart that link these two, even while Alice is married to other people.

Nevertheless, questions arise. Is Alice in need of "rescue" as Billy says? Or is he stalking her? If so, is he any more trouble to her than she is to those around her?


"You're going to get hurt," one friend tells her, "if you keep hitting people."

"It's a vulgarity I have, I know," she acknowledges with some embarrassment. "It springs out of me. I have to work on it."

That last line, with its bit of psychobabble dropped into an uproarious barroom scene, is one way Smith's humor works.

As for what propels the novel with such force for 350 pages, it's not just the dizzying ebb and furious flow of Alice and Billy's relationship, but the intoxicating lilt of Smith's prose itself, whether he's bringing alive Miami neighborhoods, Everglades hideaways or rural Mexico. (These lovers get around.)

Take this description of Florida thunderstorms that, picture-perfect in its own right, taps nicely into the way Billy's mind works: "Each afternoon the sky put on another of its theatrical productions, promoting the idea that amassing then clearing everything away was the solution to all ills."

There's an image, a rhythm, a line like that on every page of "Three Delays," making it a reading pleasure as heady as they come.

Michael Upchurch is a Seattle Times

arts writer.

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