You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

Teen angst, adult indiscretions fester in ‘Strangers to Temptation’

South Carolina Lowcountry births vivid, ’70s-era coming-of-age stories


“I’ve never figured out what it was about being 13,” says the unnamed narrator in Scott Gould’s animated debut, “Strangers to Temptation: Stories,” “the way you think you’re the core of every existing universe, the way any event that happens to you is epic and mythic, the most important thing that will ever occur.”

It’s a keen observation, even if it does low-ball the experiences of his fraught and fractured adolescence. In 1970s South Carolina Lowcountry, small, seemingly innocent acts snowball into catastrophic ones, and the dangers lying beneath the cola-colored Black River succeed in luring teenage boys standing at the edge of Baker’s Bridge to disastrous fates. Our witty hero, the common denominator in each of these 13 linked stories, seems unfazed by such risks, and his increasing independence imbues him with a sense of invincibility. “When you’re 13, tragedy is a passing annoyance,” he says.

In “The Orbit,” the narrator finds himself envious of his friend Lonnie Tisdale, who uses his artificial eyeball to steal away the narrator’s crush. The story poignantly captures the frustration of adolescence, along with the disappointing realization that even the briefest of hesitations, the smallest of missteps, can produce undesirable long-term consequences. “Live long enough. You’ll look back and regret your collection of tiny moments when you turned left and should have gone right, when events — cosmic or otherwise — conspired for or against you.”

While his mother is working double shifts as a nurse to support the family, the narrator’s father in “The AC” hides out in an air-conditioned 1972 Lincoln with the neighborhood widow to discuss communism and the Vietnam war that left him permanently disabled. It’s a dazzling take on marital discord, the not-so-innocent flirtations between adults, and the fuzzy line between decency and impropriety. In his father, the narrator sees a fallible adult and a glimpse into his own possible future. “I realized then I was destined to spend a lot more time in my life looking to be forgiven than doing the right things, which wasn’t so much a depressing thought as it was exhausting.”

In “Stand-In Jesus,” one of the strongest stories, Gould delves deeper into the psyche of the narrator’s father, whose beard and emaciated frame deem him the perfect actor to play the persecuted Son of God in the church’s annual Easter production. The story is a searing comment on trauma and the inadequacy of so-called redemption, and Gould’s prose here is precise and invigorating. “What we remember and what we choose to forget is never up to us. If it was, we’d recall only the happiest moments of our lives, or perhaps those times when we realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were about to change forever, that nothing would ever be the same again.”

Where Gould stumbles, is when he addresses race. “Bases” describes a laughing, barefoot, “big and sweating,” seemingly nonverbal black boy (he speaks only in our narrator’s dream), who, during a baseball game that takes place on the white side of the railroad tracks, pelts a rock at a white player’s face.

White locals demonize him and the other residents of Nicholtown (which they call N-town). White children fantasize about conjuring Hitler’s ghost to exact revenge, and even our narrator describes the rock-thrower as unsightly. “He wore a pair of blue jean shorts split way up his legs and no shirt. It looked like he had rubbed some of the new lime on his chest. I could see two white hand prints smeared across his belly.” This cold assessment seems contrary to the narrator’s typically ruminative nature, and the use of a two-dimensional black character as nothing more than a target for white characters’ racial slurs reads like an unfortunate trope.

The same can be said of “May McIntosh Flies, John Wayne Runs,” which introduces white flight and school desegregation with little probing. The narrator asks his black friend Columbus to attend a football game with him at the new private school where the wealthy white students enroll after desegregation. When Columbus reminds the narrator it’s “not a good idea,” the story opens the door to the narrator’s reflection on race-related aggressions. Instead, the narrator casually chalks up Columbus’ response to maturity and self-preservation, completely side-stepping his friend’s very real, underlying fear.

The racism in these two stories feels like an inconsequential setting, one that more appropriately belongs in a collection with an oblivious or self-absorbed narrator. But our guide in “Strangers,” is perceptive and discerning. He condemns the depravity of adults and challenges the status quo. This lack of a deeper engagement with the racial forces that shape small-town South Carolina in the 1970s seems like a missed opportunity.

Despite this shortcoming, Gould has produced a compulsive read. His prose shines, and by linking these stories, as opposed to compiling them in novel form, he highlights the very essence of coming of age, how the myriad, sporadic events in a young life, serve as vital stepping stones on the daunting and oftentimes imperfect journey to adulthood. “One day a switch will flip on and you’ll get about half of life figured out,” our narrator muses. “The other half will stay a mystery. Half is about the best you can hope for.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

Xscape reunites for performance on BET Awards

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene Consider the Xscape reunion launched. Performing for the first time in 18 years, the original quartet of Kandi Burruss, LaTocha Scott, Tamika Scott and Tameka “Tiny” Harris hit the stage at the 2017 BET Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. Wearing various forms of sequins and sparkles, the ladies thrilled...
Concert review and photos: Sheryl Crow hit the W Buckhead during the day, Chastain at night
Concert review and photos: Sheryl Crow hit the W Buckhead during the day, Chastain at night

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene Early Sunday afternoon, Sheryl Crow arrived on a small stage set up inside the W Atlanta Buckhead.
Eyecatchers
Eyecatchers

COLOR-PROOF CURLS Color proof curly hair with TruCurl Curl Perfecting Shampoo and Conditioner ($35 each) by ColorProof. The first luxury shampoo and conditioner designed for naturally curly, color-treated hair helps eliminate frizz and increase shine while hydrating thirsty curls. Ingredients include seaweed, grapeseed oils and ColorProof’s proprietary...
Behind the scenes with Marvel “Avengers” stars and their trendy drinks
Behind the scenes with Marvel “Avengers” stars and their trendy drinks

It’s important to stay hydrated no matter who you are when it’s summertime in Atlanta. If you’re a superhero, it’s all the more crucial. So it was a relief to see that Robert Downey Jr., who plays Tony Stark/Iron Man in Marvel movies including the two “Avengers” pictures filming this summer out of the Pinewood Studios...
Tyler Perry makes a surprise announcement

Tyler Perry always seems to be juggling a slew of projects at any given time. He’s teamed up with “The Walking Dead,” has visited the White House in the past (and posted this video just the other day that seemed to suggest he’d made a return visit). In character as Madea he once told President Donald Trump what for and has a...
More Stories