Gin Phillips has a good, strong voice. It brays over butter churns; it whinnies on a first date; it moans when a miner’s son gets hit by a truck. The Birmingham-based writer’s episodic account of the life of a family in Depression-era Alabama practically drips with authenticity. But now she’s got to figure out what to do with her sizable talent, besides copy William Faulkner. Don’t get me wrong—aping someone’s style isn’t copyright infringement. But for anyone who happens to have read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Phillips’ debut novel, The Well and the Mine (Hawthorne Books, 251 pages, $15.95), will seem familiar.
On a structural level, the two books are nearly identical. Each of them traces a traumatic central event through the eyes of a family in rural Alabama. In Faulkner’s case, it is the Bundren family’s punishing journey to bury their matriarch; in Phillips’ case, it is the Moore family’s search for the woman who threw a baby into their well. Each novel is narrated in short sections, alternating between first-person perspectives of different family members, all in a thick dialect. Even the characters’ names sound familiar: compare Faulkner’s “Addie,” “Anse” and “Cash” with Phillips’ “Virgie,” “Jack” and “Tess.”
One wonders why Phillips chose to write in a mold, especially this one. It’s tough to out-Faulkner Faulkner, and standing next to him, she can’t help but seem a little amateurish. That’s not to say Phillips doesn’t have her own unique strengths as a writer—she does—she just needs to break out and do her own thing.
A prime example of Phillips’ strength is her keen eye for the idiosyncratic and the downright strange, a talent she employs to produce hearty laughs and striking images. Some of the most memorable of these include cicada-molt jewelry, red-eyed possums that hang upside down and devour fairies as they fly by, a boy who turns orange from eating only carrots, and a crepe dress that shrinks in the rain. The humor of these passages is especially effective when juxtaposed with the grim reality of the life of a coal miner—a daily descent into darkness.
But to make such strengths count, Phillips needs a stronger plot, and more moral complexity in her characters. Her handling of racism is timid—she’s not taking any risks—and she might as well have left it out. Even her driving question—who threw the baby in the well?—seems a little contrived. It’s an interesting dilemma for a first-time novelist. Whereas most writers struggle to find a voice, Gin Phillips has hers nailed. Now, she’s got to figure out what she wants to say with it.
READ IT: A release party for Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine takes place at The Press Club, 2621 SE Clinton St., 233-5656. 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 28. Free.