by Clyde Edgerton
Ballantine Books (1985)
Children, relatives or friends planning to take the big marital leap? Been checking out their gift registry on the Internet and then searching Bed, Bath and Beyond for that perfect buy?
Ah, but you’ve been there, lived the two-birds-in-a-single-nest life and would like to consider a more meaningful gift, something other than a blender or bathroom scales.
Because you’re a reader a book might be the answer, one that opens the couple’s eyes to the reality of marriage.
So you give Amazon a look-see.
HOW TO HAVE A GREAT RELATIONSHIP, HOW TO SAVE A MARRIAGE, WE CAN WORK IT OUT (and dozens of other ominous marital titles) practically jump into your “Proceed to Checkout” basket.
Reboot, jump on Amazon again and purchase a page turner from the past, one that may just be the best marital advice book ever written.
RANEY, Clyde Edgerton’s 1985 novel, the story of a young Southern couple’s first two years of marriage, not only gives readers a counselor’s eye view of the push-and-pull of marriage, it makes us laugh at ourselves and the whole “institution” for what it is—demise or compromise.
The issues are universal so don’t let the fact that this story is set in a small Southern town in 1975 throw you. It just allows Edgerton to surround his couple—Raney and Charles—with characters who are Mayberry worthy while showcasing his ear for a language—South speak—and culture he knows so well.
Raney is a small town girl from Bethel, N.C. She’s intelligent but a product of her environment which comes with a great deal of, shall we say, baggage. She brings to this union a degree from the local community college, a prejudice against blacks, a literal faith in the Bible which she quotes often to defend her opinions regarding life, a belief that the Bethel Free Will Baptist Church is the only church in town or the world, and an undying love and attachment to family, which includes her Mama, Daddy, little brother and sister—Norris and Mary Faye– nosey aunts, a drunken uncle, and neighbors aplenty.
All Bethel locals.
And then there’s Charles, the liberal husband, born and bred in Atlanta, Ga. Parented by two educators—his father’s a Ph.D. and college professor, his mother ‘s a high school teacher–who see the world from a broader perspective than Raney or her family (understatement).
Charles is the assistant librarian at the Community College and the newlyweds live in Listre, N.C., which to Charles’ chagrin and Raney’s delight is well within striking distance of her family and church in Bethel.
Again, these well-drawn characters come equipped with an additive—dialogue that goes way beyond funny. Edgerton’s ear puts us right in the middle of conversations that even today, should we bother to look up from our ipods or SMART phones for a second and listen, can hear at our local K&W, Walmart, beauty parlor or barber shop.
Ah, why should a novel that bestselling author Roy Blount, Jr. called “A funny, deft, heartening book,” find itself in the bookstore’s self-help section?
The story, told by Raney, takes the reader through those first two years of “bliss”—from the walk down the aisle to the birth of the baby. We learn early that the secret—other than the aforementioned compromise—is of course love. Raney and Charles do love each other. They also have a common interest—music. Which in times of trouble brings harmony. He plays banjo, she sings. They perform at local events and feature some of the great old hymns: “This World Is Not My Home,” “I’ll FlyAway,” and crowd pleasing country cover songs like “Your Cheating Heart.”
So blessed be that tie (music) that binds. But when it comes to just about everything else this union is a post-wedding Tug of War. Marital deal breakers include everything from her prejudice against minorities and ideas regarding religion to Charles’ view of how things should be between the sheets and his view of the world beyond Bethel, N.C.
This is not a marriage with many secrets. If you don’t count the fact Raney has this heating vent in the bedroom which allows her to listen in on Charles’ private phone calls to his friends (that she keeps meaning to tell him about) and that he has—somewhere in the house—a stash of girlie magazines.
But nothing at first blush that would seem major. He likes to read, and Raney’s idea of a good time is being at her Mama’s house where the family–while passing the hash—rehashes.
Home and Hearth: I’d like to be living closer to home and I know Mama and Daddy were disappointed that we didn’t move into the Wilkins house, and I would have, but Charles insisted we live here in Listre because it’s close to the college. I finally said okay when he promised he would still go to church with me at home in Bethel.
But he’s been going to church less and less, and we’ve only been married six weeks. He’ll take me to Sunday school; drop me off, still wearing his pajamas under his clothes. He’s done it twice. Deacon Brooks said since Charles was a Methodist he must think he’s too good for Free Will Baptists. He pretended he was kidding, but I could tell he was serious.
Those Sunday Dinners: (Raney’s Mama fixes at least two meats, five or six vegetables, two kinds of cornbread, biscuits, chow-chow, pickles, pies and sometimes cake).
“You haven’t ever fried any okra for this boy?” Mama says to Millie, (Charles’ mother who is visiting from Atlanta).
“We’ve never been much on okra, somehow,” says Millie.
“Well you ain’t had nothing until you’ve had some good fried okra,” Says Aunt Naomi, and she drops a piece on Charles’ plate. . .
“. . . Do you like fried oysters?”
“Sure do,” said Charles. He was staring at the piece of fried okra on his plate.
“Well, then you’ll love fried okra. Go ahead and try it.”
“I really don’t care for any.”
“Aw, go ahead. You’ll love it; I guarantee. Then when you go home your Mama can fix it for you. Can’t you, Millie?”
Charles ate the piece of okra. It was good okra.
“Now, ain’t that good?” says Aunt Naomi.
“It was pretty good,” says Charles.
Sex: I was planning to do what Mama explained to me: (on the first night of the honeymoon after Charles popped the Champagne) get in the bed and let Charles carry out his duties. And I was thinking that’s what Charles would be planning to do. But. He had a different idea which I do not have the nerve to explain. It turned into an argument which finally turned into sort of a Chinese wrestling match with my nerves all tore to pieces. Charles kept saying nothing was in the Bible about what married people could or couldn’t do. I finally cried, and Charles said he was sorry. It was awful. I cried again the next morning and Charles said he was sorry again. This may be something I can forgive but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Not for a long time.
Alcohol: Sunday afternoon Charles goes to the Winn-Dixie for groceries and comes back with a bottle of wine. He didn’t even ask me—just brought it in as bright as day with the groceries, and I found it while I was unpacking.
“Charles, what’s this for?”
“I’d rather not have wine in this house.”
“Raney, some of the people are coming to the meeting will be bringing wine. I’d like also to have some available—for my own mother, anyway.”
“Charles. Why do you need wine at a meeting?”
I didn’t say anything wise, partly because it involved Charles and his own mother and partly because (recalling the honeymoon night) it won’t champagne, which evidently does something to Charles’ brain and partly, I suppose, because I thought of Madora. She drinks wine at meals, like the French, and she poured me some one afternoon a couple of weeks ago—by mistake: she knows I don’t drink. I took a sip though, to see what all the fuss was about.
Family: Sunday. . . .We’re eating dinner at home in Bethel with Mama, Daddy, Uncle Nate, Mary Faye and Norris. Mama says, “Where did you tell me you all were yesterday morning?” She was getting the cornbread off the stove. She’s always the last one to sit down.
“At the mall,” I said.
“I like where you moved the couch to,” says Mama. “It looks better. We waited for you all fifteen or twenty minutes. I’m sorry Naomi broke that glass,” she said.
I hadn’t mentioned it to Charles. No reason to. He says—and he was serious: “Why were you all in our house?”
I was mortified in my heart.
“We were just using the phone,” says Mama. There was a long silence. It built up and then kept going.
“Pass the turnips, Mary Faye,” I said.
“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong in there so I moved things around until it looked better and sure enough it was the couch. The couch was wrong,” Mama said.
My Mama ain’t nosy. No more than any decent woman would be about her own flesh and blood.
Listen. I don’t have nothing to hide. And Lord knows, Charles don’t, except some of his opinions.
We finished eating and set in the den and talked for a while and the subject didn’t come up again. Charles always gets fidgety within thirty minutes of when we finish eating. He has no appreciation for just setting and talking. And I don’t mean going on and on about politics or something like that; I mean just talking—talking about normal things. So since he gets fidgety, we usually cut our Sunday visits short. “Well, I guess we better get on back,” I say, while Charles sits over there looking like he’s bored to death. I know Mama notices.
Before we’re out of the driveway, Charles says, “Raney, I think you ought to tell your Mama and Aunt Naomi and Aunt Flossi to stay out of our house unless somebody’s home.”
To stay out of my own house.
He couldn’t even wait until we were out of the driveway. And all the car windows rolled down.
When we got down the road, out of hearing distance, I said. “Charles, you don’t love Mama and never did.”
He pulls the car over beside the PEACHES FOR SALE sign across from Parker’s pond. And he stares at me.
The whole thing has tore me up. “Charles,” I said, and I had to start crying, “You don’t have to hide your life from Mama and them. Or me. You didn’t have to get all upset today. You could understand if you wanted to. You didn’t have to get upset when I opened that oil bill addressed to you either. There ain’t going to be nothing in there but an oil bill, for heaven’s sake. Why anyone would want to hide an oil bill I cannot understand.”
He starts hollering at me. The first time in my life anybody set in a car and hollered at me. His blood vessels stood all out. I couldn’t control myself. It was awful. If you’ve ever been hollered at, while you are crying, by the one person you love best in the world, you know what I mean. This was a part of Charles I’d never seen.”
Religion: (Here Rainy explains to Millie, Charles’ mother, why a Free Will Baptist might never find themselves in an Episcopal church, where Charles’ mother attends.)
“I don’t think I could go to an Episcopal church,” I said.
“Why not?” they both (Charles and his mother) said.
“They’re against some things we believe in most.”
“What do you mean by that?” said Charles.
“Well, they serve real wine at the Lord’s Supper. And they have priests, don’t they?”
“Yes,” said Millie.
“Well, I don’t especially approve of the way priests drink.”
“Jesus drank—if that’s what you mean—as I understand it, “she says.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, he turned the water into wine at the wedding feast.”
“Yes, but that was grape juice.”
“If Jesus turned water into wine on the spot,” I said. “It had to be grape juice because it didn’t have time to ferment.”
There was a pause.
“If Jesus could make wine,” says Charles (you could tell whose side he was on), “he could just as easily make it fermented as not, couldn’t he? Why mess around with half a miracle?”
“I’ve been going to Bethel Free Will Baptist Church for twenty-four years now,” I said. “And Mr. Brooks, Mr. Tolly, Mr. Honeycutt, and all these other men have been studying the Bible for all their lives and they say it’s grape juice. All added together they’ve probably studied the Bible over a hundred years. I’m not going to sit in my own kitchen and go against that.”
Friends: I merely asked Charles why he has to be friends with these college professors and such—why he can’t be friends with my friends. He went with me once to see Madora and her husband Larry. And Sandra and Billy Ferrell have asked us over for supper twice and he wouldn’t go either time. I know they won’t ask again.
“These people think,” he says.
“Think.” I said. “Who doesn’t think? Everybody thinks.”
“I mean think about something important, something beyond the confines of their own lives.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means getting beyond Listre and Bethel. That’s what it means. Raney, the way it works is this: small people talk about themselves, mediocre people talk about other people; and thinking people talk about ideas.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I said. See, what happens is: Charles spouts out this stuff he read in the library and expects the words to be formed in gold in my head. But I’m sorry.
“It has to do with who I want to be friends with,” says Charles. “Madora and—what’s his name—Larry are not interested in anything outside their kitchen, living room and bedroom.”
“I’ll have you know,” I said “that Madora and Larry go to Bethel Free Will Baptist Church. Don’t tell me that Jesus Christ isn’t in their kitchen, living room and bed room.”
“The problem,” says Charles, “the whole problems is that: Jesus wouldn’t have had a kitchen, living room and bedroom.”
“He would if he lived in Bethel.” I tried to let that sink in. “No matter what your Mama thinks.”
Charles says, “Why are you bringing her into this? (I wasn’t sure.) “Raney, Jesus was a radical. If people in Bethel Free Will Baptist met Jesus they’d laugh at him . . . or lynch him.”
“A radical? Charles, I had a personal experience with Jesus Christ when I was twelve years old. He wasn’t a radical then. And I did not laugh. As a matter of fact, I cried.”
“You were saved, Raney? Is that it? Were you saved and now you’re going to heaven and nothing else matters?”
“Charles, I said and I was mad, “you can run down whoever and whatever you want, but when you run down my experience with Jesus Christ you are putting yourself below the belly of a hog.” I was tore up. I had to cry. I walked out of the kitchen, into the bedroom and slammed the door with both hands as hard as I could; and Charles goes to the front door and drives off. And didn’t come back for thirty minutes
Psychiatry/Marriage Counselor: (a bit of back and forth in their third session with Dr. MaryBridges):
Well, she asked Charles a few questions and then he hemmed and hawed about feeling uncomfortable and then Mary Bridges makes this little speech about guess what: family background. I’ve been trying to talk about it all along but nobody would listen. But then she turns the tables. She says to me:
“Raney, what do you think about Charles’ parents? How do you feel about them?”
“Well,” I says, “that’s different. We don’t live in Atlanta. We live in Listre. If we lived in Atlanta I could see coming in here and talking about Charles’ parents. But we live in Listre and have a problem right here, so I don’t see any need in talking about Charles’ parents.”
Dr. Bridges explains something about family “patterns” and then you know what she says? She says almost the same thing Aunt Naomi told me one time—that in a sense, families marry families. Wisdom does not reside only in psychiatrics. Aunt Naomi has her share.”
“That’s what my Aunt Naomi told me one time,” I say. “She said a marriage was a marriage of families and not of people and that’s why you won’t see any whites and coloreds getting married. I bet you don’t have any married whites and colored comin’ in here do you?”
“No, but I___”
“Well, that‘s exactly what she said. Said a family marries a family.”
I wondered why we are paying to have a psychiatric tell us the very same thing Aunt Naomi could tell us.”
Homemaking: (Charles leaves the strainer out of the sink when he does the dishes and wastes water and then there’s this):
Charles won’t do a thing outside but pull up crabgrass out of the sidewalk cracks once in a while. I don’t know why he gets such a kick out of that. I think it’s connected somehow to his strange ideas about germs. He buys these big jars of alcohol to clean the bathroom sink with. I’ve seen him through the bathroom door—through the crack. He’ll scrub around the hole in tie bottom of the sink with a ball of cotton soaked in alcohol. Lord knows where else he scrubs. I’ll bet he goes through a bottle of alcohol every two weeks. I go in there some mornings and it smells like County Hospital. I started to ask Millie (his mother) bout that but I didn’t. Maybe he got it from her. (It’s funny what all you find out about your husband after you get married.)
Love Conquers All: The moon was coming up over the water, and waves hit against the poles, moving the pier the least bit. The moon was a dark red—because of the atmosphere, Charles said. He said it looks big at the horizon because it’s magnified by the air, which I’d never thought about. I always thought the orbit was closer when it came up, and then moved away. It sure looks that way. Charles said the red was because of chemicals and such in the atmosphere. He knows about stuff I never think about. Anyway the moon got whiter and higher and soon reflected white off the water.
We stood against the rail, pushing our shoulders together, and Charles sung this little song:
I see the moon and the moon sees me.
And the moon sees the one that I want to see.
God bless the moon and God bless me.
And God bless the one that I want to see.
I love Charles more than anything. Sometimes he’s hard to get along with, and sometimes he has some problems with the family, but he makes up for it in all kinds of little ways, and he’s always praising my singing to other people. Daddy said he thought Charles had plenty of common sense beneath all that book learning, and then too at the wedding Daddy said the thought Charles was a good man.”
This is a charming novel, one that has been called “wise, truthful and funny.” The Dallas Times Herald said, “Not since Huckleberry Finn has there been a character like Raney.” High praise indeed… But it’s more. RANEY gives us co-habitaters, when we aren’t laughing at the couple’s conflict, an opportunity to see ourselves and this institution we call marriage for what it is—a work in progress—-from that walk down the aisle until death do us part.
For a copy of RANEY, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy Clyde Edgerton’s 1985 novel/marital guide for less than Charles paid for that bottle of wine at the Winn-Dixie. Simply click on the book’s cover.