Holman's 'Cheese' - good old goodness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman. Atlantic Monthly Press. 440 pages. $24.

American excess is a familiar theme in fiction, but in her third novel, Sheri Holman offers two new variations: multiple births caused by fertility drugs and, yes, a giant cheese curdled in presidential politics.

It is an inventive combination with the potential for sharp humor and insight. This promise is only partly realized, but the book still makes for an entertaining read.

The Mammoth Cheese, which follows Holman's bestseller The Dress Lodger, tells the story of Three Chimneys, a rural Virginia hamlet caught up in two media storms. First, the town witnesses the record-breaking birth of 11 children to Manda Frank, a dog trainer undergoing fertility treatments. The town and nation rally around Manda, but their support proves fickle when her fortunes turn.

Intertwined is the plight of Margaret Prickett, a single mother struggling to maintain her family's cheese-making operation. Traditional to a fault, Margaret also strives to protect her teen-age daughter Polly from being polluted by modernity's toxins, among them television, preservatives and synthetic fabrics.

Margaret's conviction latches onto a presidential candidate who pledges to erase the debts of small farmers, leading to her creation of a 1,235-pound cheese in his honor, an echo of a tribute once made to Thomas Jefferson.

This lively plot is peopled with a likable cast, including the precocious Polly; the town's conscientious pastor; and his son, a Jefferson impersonator who works for Margaret while harboring unrequited love for her. Three Chimneys is so full of life, in fact, that it is hard to believe it is a town of just 781 people. It is rare indeed for a community that small to have, as Three Chimneys does, a high school, junior high, newspaper and long lines at the voting booth.

That is a minor quibble. More significantly, the novel is hampered by occasionally flat prose and a slightly sentimental tone. Holman's first two books were historical novels, and The Mammoth Cheese retains the lilting ease of a tale of times past - less suitable for a book intended partly as an ironic commentary on contemporary America.

Too often, the novel's edge is dulled by Holman's warm embrace of her characters, most of whom are portrayed as flawed but ultimately good and kindly folk. This benevolence is reminiscent of Richard Russo's Empire Falls; as in that book, it risks patronizing the small-town citizenry.

When Three Chimneys holds a vigil for one of Manda's babies, Holman seeks to highlight America's maudlin side: "The news crews walked backward filming the procession, capturing for the nation the beatific candlelit faces of the girls from Three Chimneys Junior High in front, their large blue eyes glistening with tears, their hands gracefully cupped around the flames." But the satire is lost in the soft light in which Holman herself has cast the town.

Tellingly, the book's most interesting character is the only one allowed to shed his goodness. Still, his evil seems unbelievable in this well-meaning tale. If anything, The Mammoth Cheese suffers from a surfeit of sympathy. As excesses go, of course, that is a forgivable one that can't entirely diminish a good story.

Alec MacGillis covers higher education for The Sun. His most recent fiction review appeared in May. His qualifications for assessing portrayals of small-town life include having lived for a time in the fourth-smallest town in Connecticut: Colebrook, population 1,471.

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