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Pearson's 'Blue Ridge': sense of place


"Blue Ridge," by T.R. Pearson. Viking. 243 pages. $24.95.

Southern discomfort is the specialty of T. R. Pearson, who in six previous novels has chronicled a wide variety of sad and gruesome events in a series of small towns in North Carolina and Virginia. Yet so leisurely and discursive is Pearson's comic style that the reader feels no pain, anesthetized by the wry, affable drawl of his literary voice.

Despite its title, "Blue Ridge" expands beyond this author's usual territory. His new novel veers between two narratives, one set in tiny Hogarth, Va., and the other mostly in the fleshpots of New York City. The stories are linked only because the two protagonists happen to be vaguely acquainted cousins.

When Ray Tatum takes a new job as deputy sheriff in Hogarth, a town settled snugly in a valley beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains, his boss describes the place as fairly humdrum, with "nothing too awful gaudy afoot." Naturally it isn't long before something awful gaudy presents itself: a human skeleton found by a hiker on the Appalachian Trail.

It's up to Ray to investigate, aided by a Park Service employee from Washington, D.C., with the improbable name of Kit Carson, who turns out to be female, black, beautiful and well-schooled in the defensive arts.

Meanwhile, a bit farther south in drearily suburban Roanoke, Ray's cousin Paul Tatum gets some gaudy news of his own. The local police inform him that his son, the product of a 1970s fling whom Paul has only seen once or twice, has been murdered in Manhattan. It isn't long before Paul, a quiet actuary with an orderly life, is on a plane heading north to identify the body. What follows is a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, as this small-town guy becomes entangled in a Big Apple intrigue involving drug traffickers, street thugs, world-weary city cops and a prostitute or two.

Although these parallel murder mysteries move along at a smarter clip than most of Pearson's earlier, more anecdotal novels, it would be inaccurate to claim that together they constitute a thriller. Those familiar with his previous books -- particularly his widely admired first novel, "A Short History of a Small Place" -- will have learned that he is not an author for whom plot is paramount. It is far more accurate to call him, as he describes one of the bad guys in "Blue Ridge," "a helplessly devoted student of human frailty."

Plots are merely conveniences that allow Pearson, via his protagonists, to deliver droll sociological commentaries on everything from the wretched tastelessness of contemporary motel rooms to the continuing vigor of small-town racism, from the "confectionary onslaught" of an office worker's cologne to an unfailingly courteous criminal "with the native decorum of an Edwardian valet."

Pearson's fiction, in short, is all in the tart details, which makes for some very entertaining reading. Yet it's hard to feel anything for the characters here, leading men and incidental extras alike, who have all been flattened into inconsequentiality by the smooth aloofness of the narrative voice. The view from "Blue Ridge" is splendid, all right, but it's more like a postcard than a three- dimensional attraction.

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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