Like fine wine, a good novel grows better with age

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson.

RUIN CREEK. By David Payne. Cedar Lane Books, an imprint of Ingram. 367 pages. $18, paperback.

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, moving, wise novel to read while you’re lounging on the beach under a shady tent or umbrella, you couldn’t do better than Ruin Creek, the second of David Payne’s three novels set largely on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Fortunately for you, this novel, first published 30 years ago, and Payne’s other two novels with the same North Carolina setting – Early from the Dance and Gravesend Light – have just been reissued and are available in paperback with a new look but the same unforgettable stories and glorious prose.

For that matter, any of these three novels would be a great reading choice whether you’re on a plane or in a submarine or stranded by a snowstorm in a mountain cabin or just sitting on your porch in a comfy chair.  Now that I’ve reread Ruin Creek, I’m going to get my hands on the other two.  Payne’s novels are beach reads, in a sense, because the beach is an important setting. But they are so much more.

Back in 1984, when he was not yet 30, Payne became a literary sensation with the publication of his first novel, Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street. The book was reviewed in all the major newspapers and won the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award.

Payne went on to write four more novels, the three set both on the Outer Banks and in a tobacco town in North Central North Carolina near Chapel Hill, and Back to Wando Passo, set in South Carolina during the plantation years and the Civil War as well as in modern times.

His most recent book, written after he made it through a rough patch in his life, is a beautifully written and at times painfully honest memoir, Barefoot to Avalon, published in 2015, and, unsurprisingly, telling of his early years with his parents and younger brother in Henderson, a tobacco market town in North Central North Carolina not far from Chapel Hill, and on his beloved Outer Banks.

Over the years, he has been hailed as one of the best writers of his generation. I can’t argue with that.

I have read and reviewed all his books when newly published, except the first one (I’d never heard of David Payne when it was published; I don’t believe a review copy was sent to the newspaper where I worked, and a story about a Taoist on Wall Street didn’t sound appealing to my younger self).

Reading Ruin Creek for the first time since it was published in 1993 was a wonderful experience. Once again, I found Payne’s prose spellbindingly beautiful, at times poetic, without ever being overwritten. He does dialect well, too, with a good ear, and without exaggerating.

Ruin Creek is the story of a troubled family that’s falling apart back in the early 1950s, told through the first-person accounts of the young husband and wife and their older son, who was 11 when things fell apart.

Jimmy and May were madly in love but hardly ready for marriage the summer when he had just graduated from Carolina and she was still an undergrad. Ready or not, they got married quickly after May discovered she was pregnant. By the time that baby was 11-year-old Joey, now with a younger brother, the stars were well out of their eyes.

In the eyes of the upper crust of the small tobacco town, May had married beneath her station. Her father owned the tobacco market; Jimmy’s father was the hardworking school principal. Jimmy had gotten ahead by being smart and athletic. An outstanding English major at Carolina, he really wanted to be a writer, but instead he was going to try medical school, thinking he could write in his spare time. When that dream died an early death, he resigned himself to working for May’s father at the tobacco market and living in a house her parents gave them.

The more he broods over having missed out on what he wanted in life, the more difficult he is to deal with. May, feeling that she’s missed out on a lot of her dreams, too, finds solace in her family heritage and position. Jimmy drinks too much, gambles, spends time with other women and is short-tempered with May and sometimes his sons.

The story of the disintegration of their marriage is told alternately by Jimmy, May and Joey. In the hands of a less gifted writer, this could have been a melodramatic, depressing novel. David Payne instead gives us a story that’s compelling, honest and wise, rich with insights into the complexities of human beings and the dynamics of families.

This is a thoroughly North Carolina novel, and now, even more than when I first read Ruin Creek, I love the way he makes the North Carolina I once knew come to life again. His tobacco barns, fields, small-town stores, bars and churches, the Outer Banks – he gets everything right, as in this passage about the night Jimmy takes Joey and his little brother to visit farmers spending the night at a wood-fired tobacco curing barn:

Daddy pulled off a dirt road and we walked up a rutty tractor path into some woods that were filled with lightning bugs and when the wind blew through the tops of the trees it sounded like the ocean, only spooky. … And then we came out in a clearing and could see a bunch of men on logs around a fire, which lit their faces with a orange light against the pitch-black shadows from their hats. They looked like so many jack-o’-lanterns sitting there and just about as scary, too … [the farmer] spat tobacco juice into the fire and grinned at us without a couple of his teeth, then stood up, brushing his hands off on his overalls to shake. … Someone went down to the patch and brought a watermelon back all nice and cold with dew trickles running down the sides. As we ate and spit the seeds into the fire I was noticing how the barn didn’t seem quite real, but like a magic thing with all the heat waves rising off it, making the air go shivery around the sides and all the stars were twinkling different there. You could hear the primed leaves rustling inside in the heat and the smell was different from the warehouse, still more sweet and green. I remembered how Daddy told me once the tobacco was alive when it went in the barn and the first heat wasn’t meant to kill it but to burn up the stored sugar in the leaves, so what would happen, Daddy said, was it would live out a lifetime in a single day, which always made me sad to think about. …

 Payne’s novels have stood the test of time well. If you’ve read them before, you’ll probably, as I did, get even more out of them this time. If you haven’t read them, you’re in for a treat that you should not miss.

Payne got back the rights for these three novels from Doubleday. Photographer Elizabeth Matheson, his neighbor in Hillsborough, N.C, took the photos for the new covers. Payne has reissued the novels from Ingram under his own imprint, Cedar Lane Books.

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