Rodney Jones’s new novel in verse, Village Prodigies, roves the lives of six childhood friends from a small Southern town. Though Jones follows each of them through decades of losses and pleasures, he always returns to one central figure, Seth Portis, who makes a provoking, mysterious protagonist. The lives of Portis and his childhood cohort unfold over the course of the book’s ten sections—each a different set of access roads through the men’s memories. The result is a compelling adventure in form and character.
Jones distills the special magic of this book in its opening section, a prose poem called “The Portal of the Years,” which begins: “Whole days try to crowd into the portal. It is a portal or it is a switchboard. A big party line, each must wait a turn. Inchoate twittering of porch chickens. Rain barrels full after the storm empties. A small place, everyone speaks and everyone listens. Though in the portal, it is not places but times that converse, while inside the switchboard, it is only the one time.” The image of the portal recurs throughout Village Prodigies, aiming us into the lives of its characters, showing us how to read this otherwise elusive collection of interconnected poems. The portal provides a guiding map through the narrative and at the same time imbues the book with a powerful sense of mystery.
Perhaps the most crucial narrative section of Village Prodigies is “The Secret Order of the Eagle,” which introduces each of the boys—Portis, Lonely Luck, Jawaharlal Mills, Mack Mack, Dudley Mann, and George Brown—as they form a covert schoolyard organization with the questionable mandate of rooting out their classmates’ crimes. The boys find fuel for this project in McCarthy-era paranoia, which plays right into their own sense of both order and bluster. Life in the Order involves the bureaucratic organization of security clearances, the investigation of suspects, and even the intrigue of an internal coup. The entire narrative episode of the Order provides an endearing—but also ominous—entry point into the dynamic among the boys, as well as a foreshadowing glimpse into their darker impulses.
Portis brought the Order together by convincing them to read J. Edgar Hoover’s book, Masters of Deceit, which unleashes among them an “air of dangerous secrets.” Throughout Village Prodigies, the books these characters read reveals something significant about their minds during each era of their lives. At thirteen, for example, Lonely Luck reads The Waste Land, which seems to have influenced his path through life. And the Eliot reference is not coincidental: our relationship to these characters feels not unlike the experience of reading certain modernist novels, our access to them elusive, elliptical—and the distinctions among them sometimes seem to blur.
Because of this blurring, tracking their individual narratives may prove more of a challenge than even readers of literary fiction might expect. Though officially described as a “novel in verse,” the true form of Village Prodigies is a subject up for debate. Novelist Richard Russo has distilled the dilemma this way: “Jones may have created a new literary form. A novel in language as dense and lush and beautiful as poetry? [Or] a book of poetry with the vivid characters and the narrative force of a novel?” The answer may simply be a matter of the expectations we readers bring to any genre, but the book contains pleasures when viewed from either side of the fiction/poetry lens.
In the book’s most poignant sequence, which describes Portis’s mother and her struggle with dementia, Portis considers the nature of her mind’s lapses and loops, whether “the portal in which the present self // regards the past has been altered / reversed. Things // tessellate and do not agree.” Perhaps the novelistic aspects of Village Prodigies never quite add up. In the end, the experience of reading it seems to dwell somewhere else—within the rules of the portal itself. As such, this work operates all the better for its elusiveness. Jones has written something rare—a genuinely useful encounter with the pleasures and the vexing strangeness of human memory.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has been published in Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Yemassee, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.
Tagged: 2017 Southern Festival of Books, Fiction, Poetry