NEIGHBOR VERSUS NEIGHBOR

By Jonathan Evison

Published: January 27, 2013

What might have been a political polemic or a partisan pitch in the hands of a lesser writer, Rilla Askew’s fourth novel is a study in the categories and contradictions that dissolve families, dissect communities, and split nations. With a topic as incendiary as immigration at the story’s core, Askew could have trod heavily over her subject matter and garnered passionate responses from both sides of the political divide. Instead she personalizes the issue, exploring with a deft hand and an unflinching moral vision the gray areas of an argument so often presented in black and white.

Set in the tiny, churchgoing town of Cedar, Okla., “Kind of Kin” is a democratic novel, employing multiple points of view across a dynamic range of characters. Dustin is a thoughtful 10-year-old boy with a bruised heart and no parents, who fiercely loves his grandfather. Said grandfather, Bob Brown, a born-again community mainstay, is currently behind bars for harboring illegal Mexican immigrants in his barn, leaving Dustin to live with his aunt. There’s also Luis Celayo, a well-intentioned but doomed immigrant searching far and wide for his sons; Monica Moorehouse, a self-serving lawmaker determined to make a name for herself in national politics with her recent anti-immigrant legislation; and Arvin Holloway, a bullying, egocentric sheriff who enforces the law with an iron fist and can’t resist the slightest whiff of media attention. All of them are vividly drawn by Askew, who juggles their divergent perspectives to create a broader view of the events as they unfold.

But at the heart of the novel is Sweet Kirkendall. It is her efforts to restore order in an increasingly chaotic universe that ultimately earn the reader’s trust. What’s left of Sweet’s family is falling apart at its threadbare seams. Her father, Bob, has been jailed and is scheduled to stand trial. Worse, on the sage legal advice of a drug dealer, he refuses to defend himself against the charges. Sweet’s son, Carl Albert (named for the Oklahoma congressman), is bullying Dustin daily, to the point where Sweet fears their schoolteachers will notice. As if that’s not enough, her father-in-law exists in a vegetative state in her living room and needs constant care, which Sweet is unable to provide. Adding to this litany of woes, Sweet’s niece is also harboring an illegal immigrant – her recently deported husband, who has returned to the States unannounced. And meanwhile, Sweet has virtually nobody to turn to for support. Her husband, who unbeknown to her has been keeping an ugly secret, works long hours, often off the grid and completely out of contact.

Down to a few precious dollars and dwindling resources, Sweet is nearly out of patience by the time the narrative begins picking up steam. Askew’s solid prose serves the pulse of the story without calling much attention to the author – and make no mistake, this story has a furious pulse. Weighty themes and extraordinary circumstances quickly converge in a manner reminiscent of another tale of cultural collisions, T.C. Boyle’s terrific 1995 novel, “The Tortilla Curtain.” Askew may not exhibit Boyle’s signature brand of verbal exuberance, nor is she quite Boyle’s equal in the arena of biting wit (though she comes admirably close in her portrayal of Sheriff Holloway); still, she paces her story masterfully. The reader turns the pages with a mounting sense of anticipation and dread, as the disappearance of Sweet’s nephew, along with her father’s impending trial, leads to a media blitz, all manner of political posturing and eventually a standoff at Cedar’s First Baptist Church. Throughout the escalating action, Sweet is continually called upon to make big decisions with enormous consequences, pitting her Christian ethics against her civic duties, in an effort to do the right thing.

If the novel casts Sweet Kirkendall in a heroic light, State Representative Monica Moorehouse assumes the role of villain. With her affected drawl and strategic wardrobe choices, Moorehouse, encouraged by her crack political-adviser husband, is a woman so hardened by politics that she expresses active contempt for her constituents (“How many times do I have to tell you not to say ‘these people,”’ her husband reminds her). She can hardly stand Oklahoma, which she hopes to escape soon for the greener political pastures of Washington, D.C. Among all the characters, including the illegal immigrants, Moorehouse distinguishes herself as the novel’s outsider. Although she speaks in terms of high-minded principles, her only real concern seems to be personal achievement. Positioning herself for a photo-op after pushing through a bill with an “English only” provision, “she happened to glance over her shoulder and realized that the Indians were standing in the food line behind her, looking just entirely too dignified and offended.”

Moorehouse, however, is not the only self-serving character on display in “Kind of Kin.” Logan Morgan, the young television reporter who breaks the news story that frames the novel, is just slightly less repulsive in her motives. Morgan hopes for even more tragedies to befall those involved in the events she covers, if only to give her story legs. Likewise, Sheriff Holloway, formerly a “chuffy little coward, intimidator, bellowing schoolyard tyrant,” has “translated these lifelong traits into a fine law enforcement career.”

These three characters in particular present one side of what is arguably the biggest divide in “Kind of Kin”: a divide in values. Moorehouse, Morgan and Holloway enthusiastically cast aside other people in favor of their individual stations, betraying only the flimsiest sense of duty to anyone but themselves; whereas Sweet, Dustin and Bob Brown, and Luis Celayo – all of whom are already working at various disadvantages – are willing to put their personal welfare, and even their safety, on the line for the sake of what they see as the greater good.

Beyond its political, racial and religious underpinnings, “Kind of Kin” is also a novel about class. Askew juxtaposes the cushy life afforded a supposedly public official like Monica Moorehouse, whose primary concerns seem to revolve around the perfect shade of hair color and public perception, with the struggles of the Kirkendall-Brown clan as they scrape by dollar to dollar, minute to minute. While the Moorehouses and Holloways of this world relish their stature and covet more of the same, forever leveraging their positions and seeking to expand their influence, everybody else is just trying to get through the day. Ironically, Askew seems to be saying, it is the working class, the marginalized and, yes, even the illegal – those peripheral, everyman characters whom Moorehouse and her ilk look upon with such disdain – who ultimately provide the heartbeat not only of Cedar, Okla., but of the nation.

(Jonathan Evison's most recent novel is ``The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.'')
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