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Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug - Donald Harington

The lightning bug, or firefly, is neither a bug nor a fly, but a beetle. I like bug, because it has a cozy sound, a hugging sound, a snug sound, it fits her, my Bug.

Deep in the dark blue air sing these lives that make the summer night. The lightning bug does not sing. But of all these lives, it alone, the lightning bug alone, is visible. The others are heard but not seen, felt but not seen, smelled but not seen.

Lightning Bug is set in the early 1930s, in the fictional Ozark town of Stay More, Arkansas. Stay More (falsely called "Staymore" by the U.S. Postal Service) is a tiny town that's only getting tinier. It has a single post office, run by Latha Bourne, who is taking care of her niece, a beautiful girl named Sonora who provides the town's nightly entertainment with the boys who gather on Latha's front lawn to fight for her attention.

Stay More, like most small towns, is full of secrets and petty grudges. Years ago Latha was engaged to one man and in love with another. They both went off to war, and only one came back. Every Dill wanted to marry Latha, but she refused. Then Every was run out of town. Before he left, he raped Latha and robbed the bank.

Years later, he comes back to a town that still remembers and hates him. Now he's a revivalist preacher, and he's still in love with Latha. And Latha might still be in love with him.

Latha is a very earthy woman; the narrative shifts between third-person limited and the first-person POV of "Dawny," a five-year-old boy in love with Latha at the time of the events in the story, relating facts and history and his own still-burning torch for his pre-pubescent crush. Is Dawny the author, Donald Harington? It's not clear because the author is an unreliable narrator, just as Latha is when the third-person limited omniscient narrator dips into her thoughts. The story is an interesting little small-town drama about the return of Every Dill and the unveiling of all of Latha's secrets.

I was impressed by both the plotting, which held suspense and interest even in such a low-key story, and the prose, which really expressed the mood of a 30s Ozark summer. Harington's Ozarker dialog was flawless (well, not like I would actually know, but it seemed authentic without being forced stylistically, or unreadable). And the book was a fine blend of humor with a streak of darkness, from the Revenuer tied up in the barn who seduces his captor's daughter to Latha's escape from an insane asylum to the final will-they-won't-they? between Latha and Every. Latha refuses to marry Every until he makes love to her; Every refuses to make love to Latha until they are married.

Doc Swain jumped out of his car and kicked it viciously with his foot. "Goddamn scandalous hunk of cruddy tinfoil!" he yelled and kicked it again. "Sonabitchin worthless gas-eatin ash can!" Then he turned wildly about, yelling, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

"Here's your true sign, Every," Latha said to him. "The Lord wants you to be a doctor."

"Naw," he said. "I'm afraid it's something else."

"A horse?"

This book is Ozark-literary — there are interludes about the chemical properties of lightning bugs, and Latha has a poignant, humorous, and semi-profound conversation with Jesus, and in between there is an awful lot of sex.

That said, if the idea of a woman holding a torch for her rapist turns you off, this book might make you throw it against a wall. But if you believe a rapist can be redeemed, then Latha and Every's "romance" is kind of twisted, yet believable and oddly touching.