“Y’all” get some “boudin” to chow down, and, “mais,” settle in with Ken Wheaton’s engaging new work of fiction, Sweet As Cane, Salty As Tears (Open Road).
The novel, the third for this Southampton College graduate, whose first job after college was working on the Montauk Pioneer, is a funny, sharply observed look at rural Cajun culture and family. It is told from the point of view of defensive, embittered 50-year old Katie-Lee Fontenot, who ran away to New York from Opelousas, Louisiana (“to escape home, escape pain, escape death”). Now, 30 years later, she’s about to return for a sister’s funeral, ambivalent and confused. Wheaton, 41, whose Long Island resumé also includes working at Suffolk Life newspapers for a while and delivering pizza for La Pizzaiola in Southampton, won student writing contests at Long Island University. In Sweet as Cane he gets various female voices down perfectly. Dave Barry, in a back-jacket blurb, says of an earlier Wheaton novel: “I had several drinks with the author at a party, and based on that experience, I would rank this novel right up there with anything by Marcel Proust.”
Wheaton, who is the managing editor of the trade magazine Advertising Age, and lives in Brooklyn (like Katie-Lee), comes from Opelousas. This is where his story begins, after a short prologue in which Katie-Lee (now Katherine) fitfully recalls childhood sweet potato sharecropper days in Grand Prairie, LA (“an old house built of cypress planks and tar paper”), living with Mama and Daddy, her older brother Kurt Junior (shattered from Vietnam), three sisters (“Karla-Jean, Kendra Sue, and Karen Anne”) and a younger brother, Joey. The prologue hints at the dysfunction of the family and also at the tragedy to come—a horrific accident involving Joey. Joey, who wanted to be a “K” like his siblings, changed his name one day, with Kathie-Lee’s help. He became Kane, “sweet as sugarcane.”
Wheaton invests Katie-Lee with an irascible but affectionate authenticity, letting her reveal herself in dialogue and interior monologue: “There I stand in a bathroom stall with a volcano’s worth of rage and nowhere to direct it. I feel like an idiot, like a cartoon character with steam spitting out of my ears and my hair on fire. I lean my head against the stall door. Footsteps approach. ‘Is, uh, everything, uh, okay?’ someone asks sheepishly. I don’t recognize the shoes—some sort of stylish sneaker—or the young voice. …‘Does it sound like everything’s okay?’ ‘Sorry,’ the voice says, then makes for the door. ‘Bitch,’ she mutters, just loud enough for me to hear. ‘You didn’t wash your hands!’ I yell after her.” Katie-Lee puts people off: co-workers, girlfriends who meet her for drinks, and, for sure, family in Opelousas. For all her time up North, however, she’s still southern at heart. Of her job writing headlines at an ad agency, she says it’s the “stupidest thing in the world to be doing, stupider than teeth on a chicken.”
Moving back and forth between Opelousas and New York, Wheaton lets Katie-Lee summon up sniping family fights and passionate adolescent days, including her first love and intended husband, Lawrence (with whom she’s had no contact since she left Louisiana). She did get married, but divorced Howie, a decent type, because she was bored. In many ways, though, she realizes he was her best friend. “Why can’t there be a happy medium for those of us who don’t want husbands or children, but who don’t want to die alone?” The recollections are certainly Proustian in the way they turn on sensual prompts. Katie-Lee still remembers making out with Lawrence, the “smell of the trees and his sweat. And that damn Bronco. That ugly, beautiful white steed, that musty, dusty thing with the splitting seats, the close air, redolent with motor oil and boy.”
Wheaton nicely expands Sweet as Cane into a societal critique on the way all ages are addicted to social media, even as they are “friended” by others. As Howie says to Katie-Lee, “You hadn’t updated your Facebook status since the airport,” where he just saw her, “so I thought you might be dead or something.” Wheaton does settings well, past and present—the old Greyhound Bus terminal, the bar scene for single women in New York, the dehumanizing modern workplace. But it’s his evocation of family that really impresses—the coming together of generations after years of estrangement, indifference and hostility—and the discovery that you can, kinda, go home again.