- The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God
In writing about her own work, Flannery O'Connor stated that her subject was "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil." With its surreal combination of Halloween and religious imagery, and its quirky cast of decent-in-spite-of-themselves characters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, Timothy Schaffert's second novel, is filled with the sort of grace before the devil of which O'Connor might have approved. It is a dark comedy full of light.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Bonnevilla, Nebraska. This is not the stereotypical idyllic quiet plains town. It's a town where the citizens throw a September mock-Halloween as a way of celebrating the execution of one of their neighbors – a man who murdered his two sons; where a haunted house in the basement of a local church depicts sinners in the fiery caverns of hell; where a love sick teen carves the name of his love across his chest with a razor; where the school bus driver, a man named Hud Smith, sips vodka from a root beer bottle as he makes his daily rounds.
Protagonist Hud is a man newly divorced from a woman named Tuesday, the local art teacher. In addition to driving the bus, he writes country songs, which he performs at the weekend market. He also plays at a local hotel piano bar. Hud and Tuesday have an eight year-old daughter, Nina, and an eighteen year-old son named Gatling who has gone on the road with a Christian band called the Singing and Dancing Daughters of God. Hud fantasizes about taking his daughter and running away. Meanwhile, Tuesday is contemplating a relationship with Ozzie, a man still grieving the death of his wife. Ozzie has a daughter of his own, a teenager named Charlotte who once dated Gatling. Now, she is dating the creepy, sinister born again Junior, a boy who convinces Charlotte to deprive herself of all that is earthly.
While there are certainly dark elements here, it somehow feels incomplete to place this novel under the category of dark comedy. Schaffert renders his characters with such an airy, gentle touch, that as the novel progresses, the darker aspects seamlessly fall to the background behind characters so full of heart and longing and love that we can't help ourselves but root for them. [End Page 193]
Hud, for example, is a character who transcends his drinking problem. It is disconcerting, perhaps, that when we first meet him, he is drinking as he's picking up the children on his daily route. There are never any real repercussions for this, and perhaps the issue is too easily dismissed in the book. However, the strength of Schaffert's characterization is that he never relies on caricaturizing, but instead works against such stereotypes as "town drunk." Perhaps this is what O'Connor means when she talks about "grace," or, as Hud muses early in the novel, "The key to an authentic country song, he thought, was to tell the story of a life lived stupidly and give it pretty strains of remorse." For Hud, every moment is potential for new song material. He is constantly shaping his experiences into country song titles, and he has a sort of country song knack for irony and honest insights. These flashes of insight reveal an honest evolution in Hud's character. In one scene, for example, he tells his friend Augustine one reason why he wants Gatling back.
"'You want to know what's sick?' Hud asked Augustine. 'What's sick is that I may just want Gatling back in order to ruin his life. To keep him close to nowhere, so he can accomplish nothing, just like his dear old dad, and his dear old dad before him. That's probably what I want more than anything.'" It is not that Hud doesn't want what's best for his son, or that he truly wants Gatling to ruin his life. The truth here is in...