Dancing In the Lowcountry
By James Villas. Kensington. 352pages. $14 paperback.
A Southern lady nearing – but maybe not quite at – her dotage. A beloved gay son who is out of the closet and living as a successful novelist in New York. Two other grown children who disapprove of the antics of them both.
And a powerful wallop of nostalgia for the S.C. coast the way it used to be, from Calabash shrimp to dancing the shag under the stars.
Let's be upfront about this: I really can't review James Villas' first novel. I know food writer Villas and his mother, cookbook writer Martha Pearl Villas, much too well. The Villas are Charlotte natives, although Jim has lived in New York for decades.
In the newspaper business, we call that a conflict of interest, and it means I'll have to leave it to others to say whether Villas' tale is good writing or bad.
What I can do, though, is alert you to a novel with more ties to Charlotte than Elmwood Cemetery.
Keep your eyes open through the story of Ella Dubose, as she flees the indignities of life as an aging widow on Eastover's Colville Road and heads to Myrtle Beach to make peace with her Lowcountry girlhood.
Jim Villas has apparently been keeping his own eyes on Charlotte from long distance all these years.
Did you ever hear the story about the Charlotte widow who hired a private plane to dump her golf-playing husband's ashes over a certain old-money country club? The story appears here as actually happening to Ella.
And I'll never drive through Eastover or Myers Park again without wondering which society doyenne is growing marijuana on her side porch to self-treat her own glaucoma.
Villas' vision of Myrtle Beach today is painted with a heavy gloss of nostalgia. How I wish there were a gracious old Southern hotel like The Priscilla still left on the Grand Strand. If there were, Ella could move over and make space for me on the porch at cocktail hour.
But Villas is certainly having fun with his story. Since Ella's son, Tyler, is obviously a thinly cloaked version of Villas himself, I had to smile when I read his description of Tyler: “Rather elegant in demeanor and still remarkably handsome for his age.”
You go, Jimmy. How many of us actually get to recast ourselves in a novel of our lives?