Reviewed by Matthew Simmons
It is difficult to give Terry Roberts’s debut novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, the full and proper treatment it deserves. This is not because it is a novel marked by “difficulty” of some experimental sense; to the contrary, it is a highly-readable, easily-digestible book. But in that statement lies the first contradiction of the novel, in that this is a “page-turner,” but simultaneously a book that asks you to slow down, to savor its unfolding, its blooming, its multiple registers. Stated differently, A Short Time to Stay Here gives you permission to tear through its pages, to read it as a thrilling suspense story—for thrilling and suspenseful it is—or a gorgeous romance. But for the careful, slow, savoring reader, it is all these things and more: a suspense, a romance, and a book that explores the South generally through the specific contexts of a particular moment, World War I in the North Carolina mountains.
Stephen Robbins was a poor boy who made right by the Horatio Alger-inflected version of America, and its possibilities, of his time. A hard worker, he left the hollow of his upbringing as a young man to work in the Mountain Park Inn, a resort for wealthy of the late Gilded Age in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Eventually, Stephen finds himself as the trusted confidante of the Inn’s proprietor, married to one of the old man’s daughters, and certain to take over one day. As our novel opens, Stephen has, indeed, taken over the Mountain Park, but has lost his wife over his love for the Inn, and lost most of his self over his love for drink. A contentious relationship with his sadistic cousin Roy, the “High Sherriff” of the county, promises to take the Mountain Park from Stephen—but then the Great War begins, and the Mountain Park Inn becomes an internment camp for a group of German merchant marines.
A Short Time to Stay Here, then, is the story of Stephen Robbins attempting to run this internment camp, to treat the men—these enemies of America—placed in his charge with respect and common human decency, while understanding the anxieties, frustrations, and anger of his neighbors, whose sons are dying at the hands of the Kaiser. And in the midst of all this comes Anna Ullman, New York socialite trying to escape the confines of her life, armed with a camera.
What results is a simple love story. And this is another contradiction of the novel. The love story of A Short Time to Stay Here is straightforward, and perhaps even predictable, in its development. But for this, there is a level of complexity to the way in which Stephen and Anna explicate one another, challenge one another, and force each other into a reconsideration of their own pasts, their own created selves. There is a “real” Stephen, a “real” Anna, and each of these has been buried; Stephen buries himself with drink and work, Anna has lost herself in her art, in her pursuit of the essence of others’ lives, made explicit in photography. And while the development of Anna and Stephen’s relationship may be predictable, the truths they learn about themselves and each other remind us of how we learned such truths in our own banal, predictable, and perfectly ecstatic romances.
As Stephen’s enemies conspire against him, he and Anna, alongside a small cast of other strong characters, try to stay one step ahead the impending cataclysm. And this is the weakest part of Roberts’s novel: the plot itself seems too contrived, its shadowy mastermind never developed, him simply a bogeyman to set things in motion. The turncoat action of one of the key German characters happens too quickly, and feels unsatisfying. But yet, in another contradiction, this plot, for all its weakness, matters little. The plot moves the book forward, yes. But its movement is ultimately of one and only one consequence: to expose us to characters like the mute, near-allegorical figure of Bird; a family of mountaineer hunters and trackers who are latter-day Spartans; a “Prince among men” as a humble, fearless, cursing-like-a-sailor black preacher; and a dog named King James, who overcomes his non-human-ness to appear as complex as the book for which he is named; and, finally, Julius Christopher, a prophet, seer, and mythological presence who hangs over the story after disappearing from it. A Short Time to Stay Here is not a novel so much as it is a character study; and in this, it excels as much as any piece of fiction I’ve read in some time.
But this is not to say that Roberts fails somehow as a novelist. He creates a full, robust world, filled with moments, scenes, and pictures of absolute wonder and beauty. The Germans build a replica of an entire city—and witnessing them doing that is nothing less than magical and is why we read novels. Anna and Stephen at one point will be surrounded by trees and the convergence of two rivers, drowning in the overwhelming sound of flowing water—and this is one of the most gorgeous moments I’ve read in contemporary fiction, somehow both perfectly chaste and overwhelmingly erotic. Thus, this is a novel of characters, and scenes, and the productive wonderfulness found in the tension between coexisting, contradictory forces. It is, then, a novel of moments.
This is perhaps best expressed by Stephen’s description of one such moment, as he and Anna, along with another character, Johnny, share a meal with Prince and his wife Dora—“the darkness added to the sense of the special moment: warm, spicy, absolutely preferred and suspended in time.” And that is the most apt description of A Short Time to Stay Here I can give; it is a novel warm in its generosity, characters, and nuance, spicy in its excitement and variation, and beautifully, perfectly suspended in a particular time and place that becomes so incredibly real and realized that it forces us into a reevaluation of what we thought we knew about the upland South in the 20th century. In this, Terry Roberts has created a fiction more truthful than history; and for that, we should be grateful, we should read and re-read this novel, and we should hope he writes another.
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