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Tucson Weekly Mississippi Mud

Carolyn Haines Tackles the Seamy, Humid Condition in Her Latest Novel

By Christine Wald-Hopkins

Touched, by Carolyn Haines (The Penguin Group). Paper, $11.95.

AUGUST 18, 1997:  TAKE A CHORUS of sanctimonious, stout Southern Protestant women. Add a bellchoir of their daughters. Bring on stage one high-kicking 10-year-old; her sexy, animistic mother, the old boys in town nipping from the moonshine jar...and you've got yourself the cast for an electric Southern story.

Carolyn Haines' new novel, Touched, takes place in pre-AC, Prohibition-era, Jexville, Mississippi. Sixteen-year-old Mattie, mail-ordered in to marry barber Elikah Mills, is summoned to the birthday party of the daughter of a town dignitary. Arriving just a little late, she walks directly into the long-standing squabble between the church ladies and JoHanna, the town's free spirit. The fat, chinless birthday girl is trying to gather the guests for ice cream; but JoHanna's slender, fully-chinned daughter Duncan is mesmerizing them with her version of the Charleston. Then lightning strikes. Literally. Duncan is hit, but survives, somewhat scathed. As the only one there to step in and take action for Duncan and her mother, Mattie is seen to be aligned with them. When Mattie's again present as Duncan begins to prophecy drownings, the die's cast; Mattie has joined up with the outsiders.

The themes of Touched relate to hypocrisy: religious, gender, ethical. The good Christians of Jexville backstab, compete for souls (the Methodists against the Baptists), and see the devil at work in the mouth of a child. (When Duncan recovers from the lightning strike, they claim even Satan wouldn't take her. Mattie replies that she went to God, and He sent her back with a mission.) In this town, where the ladies pass the communion grape juice as the men pass Tommy Ladimer's hooch, and where they hang a woman for getting back at her husband for a lifetime of beatings, herd mentality can eclipse reason. Innocents best beware the barber's tools.

Narrator Mattie's role as the naive outsider allows the reader to discover bit by bit just how nasty small, '20s-era Mississippi towns can be. We knew that. But Mattie didn't. First we have her "friend" Janelle confiding in her: "She said Elikah had gone to the station to meet me with enough money in an envelope to send me back home if I didn't look tractable and decent." They and their husbands take a trip to New Orleans, where something occurs that makes Mattie feel "touched by rot." Then there's Mattie's husband Elikah, handsome but good with both the razor and the strap. We first learn about him when a dry goods salesgirl, helping Mattie try on a dress, looks at the backs of Mattie's legs and comments, "You look a little young for marriage and a little old for a strappin'."

Mattie has the same initial reaction to Floyd, the village idiot, as everyone in Jexville except Duncan's family. But we soon see him as a gentle- giant storyteller. As is the scandalous JoHanna, who eschews the Methodist service for a sort of nature-worship (and wears filmy, immodest dresses and attention-getting hats as she drives her red touring car through town). Then there's her daughter Duncan, confined to a wheelchair after the lightning strike, who keeps busy dreaming of drownings; John, the Chickasaw-Mingo-Scot-Irish-Welsh writer materializes down by the river; and Pecos, the attack rooster. Together with Mattie, they make quite a crew.

When JoHanna helps Mattie end the pregnancy she fears will consign her to Elikah's abuse forever, and Red Lassiter ignores Duncan's pleas to avoid the logs on the river, this crew needs to pull together. Because don't nobody mess with Elikah's property. And the town's superstitious: It views prescience as pernicious.

Don't go to Touched for a literary experience. There's not a lot of Faulkner in Carolyn Haines' writing. But she establishes her ambiance well: This Mississippi heat is as thick and threatening as Bubba breath. Quite a bit happens in the novel, but Haines shows refreshing restraint in her narration. Rather than wallow in what turns out to be pretty sordid sex and violence, she cuts away in a manner that suits her young narrator.

It's a natural for film: You've got your sultry setting, your good guys, your bad guys, and...you've got lots of action. Especially after Duncan dreams those bodies in the tree.

And it's entertaining. Touched is a pool-side or monsoon afternoon page-turner.

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