WHISKEY & RIBBONS. By Leesa Cross-Smith. Hub City Press. 272 pages. $27.
Reading the first 12 pages of Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut novel, "Whiskey & Ribbons," is like swigging a shot of Jack Daniels. Smooth and strong. Dizzyingly delicious. Her prose goes down fast and packs a punch. Then you take a deep breath and feel it’s residual burn. On subsequent pages you pace yourself, taking only small sips from here out, savoring whatever spell it is that mind-altering substances impart.
As Cross-Smith makes clear, a well-told story can be similarly mind- and heart-altering. There’s plenty of booze in her tender tale of love and grief and intertwined relationships, but it’s not soppy. Instead this straight-up, no-chaser story is gentle and quiet, its characters are ordinary and likable, sober everyday heroes.
We meet Evangeline, a ballet dancer, and Eamon, a cop, and we fall for their wholesome, sweet love affair that dazzles and twirls for all to admire. But not for long. A year after marrying and a month before expecting their first born, Eamon dies in the line of duty, as the reader learns in the very first line of the first page.
And so "Whiskey & Ribbons" unfolds as a novel of aftermath. Evangeline is left to move forward in the midst of grief that makes her “bones ache with sadness. There is a gritty black tea stain on my heart, every organ.” But she is not alone; the young widow is accompanied through grief, and shares the devastating loss with Eamon’s best friend and adopted brother Dalton, an accomplished pianist and bike mechanic. “Taking things apart and putting them back together again was a comfort for me and had been my whole life,” says Dalton, orphaned as a boy after his depressed mother committed suicide.
Cross-Smith explores the joy and heartbreak of relationships, and the complex layers within families and between friends, and how these dynamics shift and morph, like dancers in a pas de deux, or like a piano sonata, or a fugue, where varying voices build on each other, and repetition becomes the anchor.
Indeed the novel plays on this musical conceit, with varying definitions of “fugue” as an epigram, as Cross-Smith embraces the tidy double entendre (the dense fog of grief and the musical form). Following those brilliant first dozen pages, the rest of the story, set in Louisville, Ky., unfolds in alternating segments written in the first-person voices of Evangeline (Evi), Eamon and Dalton, so the reader hears varying perspectives of how Eamon and Evangeline fall in love, of the tight brotherhood between Dalton and Eamon and of Evi’s struggle with being a vulnerable new mom and new widow at the same time.
Voices that build on each other, overlap in melodies and tones. Most of the telling takes place during a snowstorm, a hushed, huddled-up period of forced reflection when time is frozen, quite literally, and the calm pace and spare, soft-fallen prose mirror this.
Cross-Smith’s clever, interweaving framework mostly works, yet I sometimes found myself wishing the characters’ voices were more distinct, infused with a bit more personality and flavor. At times, revisiting the same story lines, albeit from a different perspective, gets tiring. But isn’t this the essence of grief, of life? The days tumble on, one after the other, Groundhog Day-style, and we tumble along with them.
The fugue state of grief only heightens this sense of being unmoored; our connection to others the one thing that holds us together, and Cross-Smith gets this. As Evi and Dalton, ever the steady repairer, begin to fall in love, it feels real, understandable, even beautiful, despite also feeling messy and perhaps even wrong. This is Shakespearean-type material — complex and convoluted — and Cross-Smith, a young mother from Kentucky and finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (her first book, "Every Kiss a War," is a short-story collection), wrangles it well.
It also bears saying that Cross-Smith, like her characters, is both African-American and Southern, but she’s intentional about writing a novel that cannot be characterized exactly as "Southern Lit" or as a book about race, though surely this is a hot topic and could have been an easy promotional angle.
If anything, I wish it had a bit more Louisville flavor in it, more sense of place. It bears pointing out as well that this debut novel was published by Spartanburg’s Hub City Press, a force in independent publishing and in identifying worthy literary voices from the South. Cross-Smith is definitely one of these, and "Whiskey & Ribbons" a read worth raising a glass to.