Books I Done Stole: The Corioli Affair by Mary Deasy
Stolen From: Rudy's, a nightclub in Tallahassee, Florida. Their lobby is all ornamental books.
This book began in confusion for me. The first sentences are, "That winter I lived in Corioli, in a red-brick house on Longmill Street. There was a little shop on the ground floor where Nora Casey sold notions and candy, and above it a floor that was let to a family named Maher." It's clear that our heroine is Irish, and has been traveling, and for some reason I got it into my head that this was all taking place in Italy. It wasn't until page 12 that some character tells our heroine that she'll need "to study up on our American currency." I was stunned and went back, looking for any kind of sign, and that's when I realized that this book was curiously lacking in details for much of its length. For about thirty pages or so, this could have been taking place on a distant planet, out someplace dull.
Turns out it's actually 1884. Our heroine, lovely nineteen-year-old Lacey Dereen, has moved to Louisiana, or possibly Missouri, to find a life for herself in the wake of her father's death. This much we know by page three. She meets people and gets a teaching job, and befriends a couple, the Daytons--Jed and Sallie. (Sallie has a friend named Allie, which seems wholly unnecessary.) Jed is a taciturn riverboat captain, and his wife is a spoiled, temperamenal flibbertigibbet. Nothing happens.
I really mean this. By page fifty I was starting to yell at the book: "Hey, things! Why don't you occur? Or transpire! Give eventuating a shot!" She talks about Sallie to her housekeeper/family friend Mrs. Dandy. She talks about Mrs. Dandy to Sallie. She talks about both of them to Jed, who doesn't say much. And even at school, her kids are well-behaved and no challenges seem to present themselves. "Just wait," I told myself. "Things are building to something, surely." By page 107, when I read the sentence, "This was one more time that nothing had happened. I wondered how long it could go on that way," I was nodding in sympathy with the poor author, who was cleary in the same funk I was.
But things do build to something! The problem is, they finally occur on page 150, when there's only 100 pages to go. Apparently what's happened--and really the whole thing is a hazy wash of riverboats and crinoline--is that Jed Dayton and Lacey have fallen for each other. But he's married! And his wife won't give him a divorce! And I really can't pinpoint the source of this attraction, but the writer has taken care of that. (Jed: "This is impossible. Why are these feelings so strong?" Lacey: "I don't care. I only know that I love you!" QED.) The exciting thing on page 150 is that he suddenly quits town, leaves his wife, and meets Lacey on the q.t. back at Nora's place upriver, where she's fled to avoid the rumormongers. But then it turns out...Jed's ex Sallie has been found murdered!
"Aha!" I said. "So that's why we've spent so much time talking to Mrs. Dandy's nephew, who's a famously slick trial lawyer! And that also explains the occasional mumblings of characters who disapprove of tiny things and keep saying, 'There's going to be a riot one day!'" And that's the problem, of course: As soon as the plot was set in motion, I could see exactly where it was going, and the only real question was what would be the exact shape of the wreckage at the bottom of the hill.
I slogged through anyway, and I deserve some kind of medal. Here's a sample of Jed and Lacey on page 75, right after he suddenly declares his love and kisses her.
"No," I said again. "Oh, no. We can't."
"Yes," he said. "We can't. But we do. Don't talk. Don't say anything."
"I have to say it. Now. We can't let it happen."
"It has happened. There's nothing we can do about it."
"Nothing has happened."
"Nothing except that I'm in love with you. And you with me--"
What's there to say? Innocent Jed is accused of murder. Nephew Dayton tries his magic. Jed's found guilty instead of manslaughter. A mob, furious, takes matters into their own hands--but the raid on the jail, and the lynching, go a little awry when, in the worst coincidence I've read in some time, the lynchers somehow tear the window out of the third-floor jail cell (with ropes? Is it that easy?), and then, since they can't climb up, they switch plans and enter the jail proper. And while they're hammering down the cell bars, Jed, jumps out the now-open window. He cracks a few ribs, but survives and finds Lacey...but he needs a doctor. What will they do? Why, they'll hop on a riverboat, run into a squall, so that Jed can die a riverboat captain, saving the entire ship and lasting just long enough to hiss out his last loving cliche. ("I won't leave you...Not even if I die. They can make me die, but they can't make me leave you.") Cue the ponderous minor chord. The only interesting thing about the book is that on page 214, I read a sentence I will probably never see again: "He convolved his lips at me, whispering, almost without a sound: 'Where is he?'"
The back cover is interesting, though. It's in bad shape, like the front, but you can still make out the TV-era anxiety in it, since it's an essay titled "In Defense of the Novel" by Sterling North, some literary editor of the time. He spouts more cliches: "The novel will never die...while civilization endures...The novelist furnishes us a magic carpet...we can explore Paris with Balzac, Russia with Tolstoy...or raft down the Mississippi with Mark Twain." With hoary truisms like those, I'm not sure I'd trust his actual literary editing. But after reading The Corioli Affair, I can offer this rejoinder: If we rafted down the Mississippi with Mark Twain, and the raft just sat there for a hundred pages, even 50s-era TV would start to look pretty good. If I ever go back to Tallahassee, I'm going to put this back on the shelf.