BARBARA BRANNON | THE TEXAS SPUR
Teddy Jones, Slanted Light (New York: Midtown Publishing, August 2020). Trade paperback, 978-1-62677-022-5, 292 pgs., $14.99.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” advised Emily Dickinson, and in the right hands fiction can accomplish that as well as poetry.
Teddy Jones’s lead characters in “Slanted Light,” second in the series that began with “Jackson’s Pond, Texas,” no longer trouble to tell each other the truth, and that’s eating at their marriage and their consciences.
Rancher J.D. Havlicek and his nurse-practitioner wife, Claire, having reached the flash point of forty, have their issues, but it’s Claire’s professional crisis, an adolescent daughter’s struggles, that bring them into sharp focus. It’s family, too, who ultimately bring relief like welcome rain falling on a failing field.
Through multiple viewpoints (which sometimes shift unexpectedly in mid-chapter) the ensemble cast supporting J.D. and Claire delve into twenty-first-century issues: small-town politics; corporate buyouts; bullying at school; the dominance of devices and screen time (and not the kids’ alone); the demands of running a “lean operation” and responsibility for ranch, family-owned enterprises, and household. The Havliceks’ lives are familiar—they’re our (not-so-close-by) neighbors in the Big Empty.
So is the landscape, from the mountains of New Mexico to the plains of West Texas. Readers who already love these vistas will take pleasure in Jones’s apt descriptions; readers who aren’t may come to grasp Texans’ peculiar affection for the drop off the cap, or the glimmer left standing in a playa lake even in drought, or the profile of a rocking chair turned upside down on a worn porch to keep the wind from blowing it away.
“He skirted around town, drove directly to the highway and turned east toward Matador,” Jones narrates in J.D.’s perspective. “Dropping down in elevation, steadily from 3100 feet up at their place all the way to Fort Worth at about 790 feet, the land changed from the flat mesa where Jackson’s Pond sat, down off the Caprock onto the Rolling Plains. As he drove, he met an occasional pickup or car and passed even fewer” (107).
Claire, whose lineage includes artists as well as ranchers, observes on her way to the community clinic where she works that “at the end of its last block north, Main Street abruptly became Farm-to-Market 2282, like a divorcee taking back her maiden name” (101).
It’s gratifying to read a contemporary novel that intersperses between its chapters snippets from the local newspaper—in this case, cameo appearances of a Floyd County Tribune and a Lubbock Journal whose real-life counterparts are readily discernible. Recognizable, too, is the four-block downtown where stand six churches of different Christian denominations: “Doctrine and parking lots separated them all.”
In the annual cycle from an end-of-summer vacation return, through hay cutting through homestead Christmas to junior livestock show and on to Memorial-Day cemetery cleanup, Jones chronicles the rhythms of small-town Texas as her characters’ choices unfold.
She knows whereof she speaks, regarding the challenges to small-outfit ranching and rural health care; but she knows about the heart from a writer’s art, too, and crafts these together into a truth-filled story of reality and relationships.