SMOKE by Elizabeth Ruth (Penguin), 275 pages, $20 paper. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Every so often a new writer comes up with a good first novel and you worry that it may have been a fluke.
Elizabeth Ruth's Smoke, the follow-up to her solid debut, Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, not only stills those fears but takes her talent to the next level.
Set in the late 50s, Smoke tracks the devastation of 15-year-old Buster, who, after getting hammered during a drinking contest, accidentally sets fire to himself and his room on the family tobacco farm. Suddenly, he's not a beautiful, fit, promising young man any more. He's disfigured and traumatized. And he must return to one of the cruellest places on earth - high school.
As he tries to recover, he faces horrified responses from strangers and ambivalence from his father, who's of the get-over-it school when it comes to dealing with pain.
But there are glimmers of support - from his mother, from Jelly Bean, a budding young artist profoundly alienated by the fact that she's being groomed for the local beauty pageant, and, especially, from Doc John, an unusually sensitive physician who tells Buster stories of Detroit's infamous mob activities while he methodically scrapes the burnt skin off his body.
The title refers to the name of Buster's home town near Windsor, to the area's chief crop, tobacco - the author's research in the area of tobacco growing is deep and precise - and to the smell that lingers in the farmhouse.
Ruth writes clearly and with empathy, and her characters, most of them in some way outsiders, are sharply drawn. This is a terrific story, told very well.
Ruth is definitely the real thing.