The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis, review by Bruce Jacobs
Set in the fictional North Carolina mountain town of Old Buckram, The Barrowfields is a stunning debut novel rich in character and place, steeped in literature and music, and fraught with family drama. Raised in an old mountaintop mansion by his eccentric book collector/unpublished writer/lawyer father and supportive but overwhelmed mother, Henry Aster Jr. narrates the story from his perspective as a new lawyer. He left Old Buckram for college in Connecticut and law school in Chapel Hill, but could never quite shake his father's influence.
Impressing his young son, Henry Sr. would glibly quote favorite passages from Poe, Wolfe, Camus, Styron, as well as many others from his 10,000-volume library. Writing alone in the quiet night with a plentiful supply of alcohol, he longed to join their ranks, but his book was only ever "coming along." With a sensitive daughter nine years younger than Henry, and another daughter recently killed at age three by a kick from one of his wife's horses, Henry Sr. walked out on his family and never returned. Henry Jr. was devastated, and his mother tried to comfort him with a passage from Beryl Markham's West of the Night: "...the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it."
But comfort comes hard to Henry, who consumes alcohol with abandon like his father did, pursues a gorgeous law school classmate with her own murky past, and regrets leaving his fragile sister whom he promised to stand by. Spinning his wheels as a lawyer with no particular alternative, he returns to the "moribund town of no earthly consequence in the persistent autumn of its bleak existence," to the abandoned Old Buckram mansion to confront the ghost of his father and seek relief from the "hateful bitterness inside me... from my inability to understand him and his indifference to my inability to understand him."
Born in the Carolina Appalachians and now a litigator in Charlotte, Phillip Lewis knows the idiosyncrasies of small mountain towns. With clear echoes of Poe and Wolfe, The Barrowfields also gives a nod to Richard Russo by reflecting an appreciation for the eccentricities of regional characters. For example, Henry recalls his first piano teacher, "a wispy-haired, D-cupped Glenn Gould unspooling more sequacious melodies and counterpoints than my mind could simultaneously hear and comprehend," and the local pastor who "had no special insights into the machinations of God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit... but the certitude with which he condemned sinners to hell elevated him to the head of his church at a young age and he preached for his entire life." Lewis drops in colorful snippets of local life, including a book burning, a pinch-faced librarian hoarding her books, a lonely woman burying her cat in baby clothes, even an unsolved family murder/suicide. But the heart of the story is Henry's difficult relationship with his father--a frayed bond that he finally accepts with the understanding that Henry Sr. "was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him." Lewis has put Old Buckram firmly on the map.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.