Valerie Sayers, following a distinguished line of Southern novelists, appears to be trying to turn her own little Dixie postage stamp into a cosmos. Who Do You Love, like her previous novels (Due East, How I Got Him Back), is set in Due East, S.C. It centers on three members of an Irish Catholic family, each of whom undergoes a personal crisis in a portentous time: November 1963.
The era is splendidly evoked, but a few of the plot elements seem too schematic. The father, Bill Rooney, is a patriotic Southerner who gave up playing jazz to marry fiery Yankee redhead Dolores McGillicuddhy, a civil rights champion and cultural know-it-all. Her moral smugness drives her husband into harmless rages, but as marriages go, it’s a good one.
Katherine, their youngest child, is teetering on the brink of sexual knowledge and also has to accept the unsettling fact that her mother is pregnant again. In the midst of all this family anxiety, parents and children must cope with the murder of that secular saint of Irish Catholicism, President Kennedy. His death is the last epiphany in a novel that contains enough moments of illumination to satisfy James Joyce.
A completely literate novel, Who Do You Love can’t decide whether to take its ambience from Søren Kierkegaard or Bo Diddley; quotes from both sages form the novel’s twin epigraphs. It’s not intellectually tough enough for Kierkegaard and not low-down bluesy enough for Diddley. Good white-bread Southern fiction is what it is. B