Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Fryin’ Up an Identity

Mary Liza Hartong’s debut queer romance novel captures West Tennessee living

Mary Liza Hartong makes her debut as a romance writer with Love and Hot Chicken, a queer Southern novel set in the small West Tennessee town of Pennywhistle. Filled to the brim with quirky characters sporting even quirkier names, the novel offers much to love from the start, yet the opening is rather sorrowful since main character PJ Spoon is on her way home from Nashville to be with her mother after the unexpected death of her father.

Photo: Rory Fraser

PJ Spoon grew up like many kids in the South, with loving and encouraging parents who took her fishing, taught her to hunt, and were overly invested in her softball team. PJ’s mother, despite her small stature, has made big strides in the community, baking pies, delivering newsletters, and — lately — petitioning against the tampon tax. PJ’s father, on the other hand, was more relaxed. A local firefighter, he spent as much time as possible being the best husband and father he could. When he dies unexpectedly, PJ and her mother find their worlds upended, and it is the generosity of their familiar Pennywhistle community that helps them find their way again.

Hartong’s writing style fully embraces Southern dialect, with PJ often using creative similes and metaphors. Her description of Tennessee is a perfect example:

Tennessee’s long but she’s also skinny, so from here to Nashville don’t take but a few hours of cruising past XXX billboards and blown out tires. Shoot, that’s a pretty drive. Nothing but Jimmy Buffett and Jesus on the radio. Growing up, we’d go every summer to see Lee Ray’s Auntie June, a psychic ventriloquist with half a dozen boyfriends and a pet snake.

 Lee Ray is PJ’s childhood friend and most important confidant. Seeing Lee Ray is one of the highlights of the trip home from her Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University, a program she’s thinking of quitting. At first, she goes back to Pennywhistle to be at her daddy’s funeral and comfort her mother, but she soon finds herself renting a small cottage and applying for a fry cook job at the local Chickie Shak. As the smell of grease seeps deeper and deeper into her pores, the university life seems like a fever dream, unattainable and even silly in hindsight.

Ill-equipped to handle grief, PJ draws further and further into herself, and not even her mother or Lee Ray can snap her out of it. However, PJ finds herself enamored with her Chickie Shak coworker Boof, a mysterious woman around PJ’s age who recently moved to Pennywhistle from Texas. As the two grow closer, PJ realizes she does not know as much about Pennywhistle and its townspeople as she initially thought. As PJ uncovers more about Boof, she also learns more about others in the town and even herself. One day, when the owner of the Chickie Shak chain, Mr. Puddin, waltzes in with an entire camera crew and announces a nationwide pageant competition for all female Chickie Shak employees, the smooth teamwork machine of Boof, PJ, and older employee Linda is quickly transformed, becoming an every-woman-for-herself scenario for Linda and a baffling situation for PJ, who only wanted to keep her head down and drown in her loss of identity without her father and biggest believer.

Over the course of the pageant competition, as PJ gets to know Boof as more than a coworker, discovers surprising truths about her mother, and helps Lee Ray reconnect with his ex-boyfriend, she is in awe of how much love still surrounds her, and she reinvigorates her efforts to be the best daughter, friend, girlfriend, and — maybe — Ph.D. student she can be.

Hartong’s writing style — with colloquial gems such as “jorts” (as in jean shorts), shoo-ee, “hullabaloo,” and sentences like “Pennywhistle’s low and flat like Mamma’s rear” — is a hoot to traverse. Her storytelling makes the Southerner in me homesick, and as a reader, I’m delighted to see more authentically Southern queer romance novels such as Hartong’s bless the shelves.

Fryin’ Up an Identity

Abby N. Lewis is from Dandridge, Tennessee. She is the author of the poetry collection Reticent, the chapbook This Fluid Journey, and the newest chapbook Palm Up, Fingers Curled from Plan B Press.