Nightlife

Where The Heart Is

by Christopher Hartley
Contributor
Monday Jun 1, 1998
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Author Billie Letts knows how to spin a good yarn: Seventeen-year-old Novalee Nation, seven months pregnant, is suddenly abandoned at a Wal-Mart in tiny Sequoyah, Oklahoma, by her loser boyfriend during a cross-country move to California. When the store closes and she’s accidentally left in the bathroom, she simply spends the night (in a sleeping bag in the camping section). And the next night, and the next one.

Novalee manages to evade the store employees, learn their habits, and faithfully keeps a running tab on the food she’s consumed and clothes she’s picked off the rack. There’s a delightful moment where she wanders the empty aisles for inspiration in choosing a name for her baby. Coleman? Hanes? Dixie, if it’s a girl? After she gives birth to her daughter inside the store and becomes the subject of intense media coverage, one stranger suggests Walmartha (and Walmark, if a little brother should come along later).

Recently reissued in paperback to coincide with the hardcover release of Lett’s third novel, "Shoot the Moon," (a brief excerpt is included at the back of the book) this New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection remains her best work. Letts has a knack for creating endearing, eccentric characters without them becoming cartoonish. People like God-fearing Sister Husband, (‘bony with blue hair and no eyebrows’), who runs the local Welcome Wagon and hands out the bible -- one photocopied chapter at a time. "Folks read too much of it, they get confused," intones Sister Husband. Righteous, but cognizant of her own sins, Sister Husband nightly asks God forgiveness for the fornication that she and her gentleman have committed outside of marriage.

To some Wal-Mart is the Death Star, destroying small town community life wherever it goes. Here it becomes Novalee’s salvation, first by providing her shelter, and later by serving as the portal through which she meets the people who will become her surrogate family. Letts effectively intersperses Novalee’s story with several high-wire, cliff-hanging chapters that follow her wayward boyfriend, Willy Jack, who’s return seven years later finally gives Novalee the courage to undo a lie that will bring her the one true happiness she’s refused to grant herself.

by Billie Letts

Warner Books, $7.50 paperback (reissue), 326 pages. Includes 10-page excerpt of Lett’s current novel, "Shoot the Moon."

Christopher Hartley is a native of Southern California, but fled to the warm embrace of Boston several years ago. When not working in higher education or reviewing for EDGE, he stays active with Boston’s local gay swim team, Liquid Assets.

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