June Read of the Month: “Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale,” by Lynda Rutledge

Review by Andy Johnson.

Amy Einhorn Books /G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin). Hardcover. 289 pages. $25.95

In this, Lynda Rutledge’s first novel, God commands ailing Texas widow Faith Bass Darling to sell her Louis XV Elephant Clock, an heirloom wedding ring, a banker’s rolltop desk, a rare Dance Dragoon pistol, 44 signed Tiffany lamps, a portrait of Jesus with moving eyes, a $10,000 bill, a family Bible, an old love letter, and perhaps the famous Bass Mansion before she dies.

Faith Bass Darling’s mind is “sundowning,” a symptom of middle-to-late stage Alzheimer’s disease. Short-term memory fugues transport her from the present to the past and even to the future in the form of visions. These fugues disturb her enough that she repeats a personal mantra, “My name is Faith  Bass Darling…I live at 101 Old Waco Road in Bass, Texas…Today is December 31, 1999…My great-grandparents were James Tyler Bass and Belle Bass…My parents were James Bass II and Pamela Bass…”  Long-term memories haunt Faith as well, especially those pertaining to the deaths of her husband Claude Angus Darling and her son Mike.

When word of the sale (including an incomparable collection of signed Tiffany lamps) reaches family friend Bobbie Ann Blankenship, Bobbie Ann calls Faith’s estranged daughter Claudia, who hurries to Bass while Deputy John Jasper Johnson hears a startling confession: that Faith killed her husband, Claude Darling.

Bobbie Ann “rescues” the family’s priceless Louis XV elephant clock from the sale, and when Claudia finally arrives, Faith argues with a memory of an angry teenager instead of with her confused adult daughter; then Faith sees a consoling vision of her deceased son. Claudia, for her part, remembers her forbidden schoolgirl crush on John Jasper. Although John Jasper was a football hero and Mike’s best friend, Claude Angus forbade his wealthy white daughter from dating a poor black boy.

The fictional town of Bass, Texas is located along the Brazos River east of Austin, an area of Texas far more Southern than Western and laden with familiar social issues: race, class, and money.  Faith singlehandedly puts the town in disarray. John Jasper, Bobbie Ann, and Father Fallow figure out what to do about Faith while everyone else figures out what to do with newfound treasures. Claudia discovers that her family fortune is gone, along with her great-grandmother’s engagement ring. A riot starts once people realize that Claude Angus hid money in old books and furniture, and John Jasper finally tells Claudia what really happened to Mike.  Meanwhile, Faith confronts the truth of Claude Angus’s death. As night falls on Y2K, fireworks mark the end of an era.

Lynda Rutledge (a.k.a. Lynda Rutledge Stephenson) is best known for her contributions to nonfiction books like “God @ Ground Zero” and “Ships of Mercy.” Rutledge won the 2008 Writer’s League of Texas nonfiction manuscript contest with “AutoBiography: A Family Story Driven By Cars.” Feedback from the WLT fiction contest, in which Rutledge submitted an early draft of this book (the draft did not win the contest), helped Rutledge shape her debut novel into a meditation on the freedom and constraints of memory.

Like a garage sale run by an Alzheimer’s patient, the novel seems a bit cluttered and disorganized.  The novel’s framing – the entire story takes place in one day – feels rushed, not least of all because caregivers typically need weeks or months to adjust to their role. Rutledge includes short chapters about many minor characters who never reappear, as well as one-page “Provenance” sections that relay the family history of certain objects. This strategy, along with some stilted dialogue, distances the reader from what should feel like an intimate story. The novel’s tone shifts from folksy comedy to new age preachy without warning. These shifts, although irritating, are also meaningful: they turn the reader into a sort of literary caregiver who must wait patiently while a loved one—in this case the narrator—rambles on.

Faith’s erratic behavior forces hard decisions on her daughter, and those decisions struck this reader in a personal way.  My grandfather died of Pick’s disease, a neurological condition similar to Alzheimer’s. This decorated WWII vet, civil rights leader, and school principal slowly forgot his life and his accomplishments. In his last years, the entire town became his caregiver, listening to rambling childhood stories and gently guiding him back home when he wandered. My experience with Granddaddy made me sympathize with Claudia, and so, if I may, I dedicate this review to my grandfather, the late Walker Fleming, Sr.

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