Having had opportunity to observe the author in his natural habitat, and to note his habits and behaviour, I decided it was time finally to tackle his best-known work: the book of Lee.
Dating back to 1991, Lee was the first of Perdue’s books to see daylight, though not the first to be written. Not long after publication, a Publisher’s Weekly reviewer wrinkled his nose, and pronounced Perdue ‘a reactionary snob’—an accolade the author has used ever since, without fear or remorse.
It seems Perdue always looked forward to being a cantankerous septuagenarian, because in this novel his alter ego, Leland Pefley, Lee, is in fact a cantankerous septuagenarian. Now 73, with menacingly cantilevered black eyebrows, Perdue must be loving every minute of the decade that finally arrived.
The story begins with Lee’s arrival in his home town, in Alabama, following decades of absence. He is replete with grumbles right from the start, his disapproving gaze emitting odium waves in the direction of just about any pedestrian or modern retail establishment dotting the main street. It seems none of the humans meet his standards, the inhabitants bearing evidence of dissolution, lack of taste, and not having read books (for Lee, their worse offense), while most of the establishments have had the effrontery to replace Lee’s old childhood haunts for sites of business offering trivial, banal, and perfectly superfluous goods and services, all expensive and of poor quality.
Lee’s first order of the day is to purchase a heavy wooden cane—the heaviest he can find, with a carved head. As he slashes the air with a series of rapid swings, it becomes evident that the cane is not intended as an aid for Lee’s thin legs, but as a delivery method for his rage.
And soon enough, individuals offensive to Lee start finding their mouths filled with cane, or worse. A wooden rain sweeps across the town, chastising its inhabitants for failing to cultivate their minds or acquire a taste for high art.
Soon Lee finds himself in trouble and is obliged to burrow in the squalid part of town to evade law enforcement authorities. His only respite, and it is always a fugacious one, is Lee’s ability to conjure the spirit of Judy, his beloved wife, deceased in the novel, but able to appear at any age he desires, though never for as long as he would like. Indeed, it is Lee’s fate to have what me most desires consistently denied to him, and the things he most despises supplied in abundance.
You will have to read to find out what happens and where it all ends, but suffice it to say that the novel is a departure from The Sweet Scented Manuscript, which dealt with the young Lee, was mostly autobiographical, and relied on making the most ordinary situations into an extraordinary narrative. To varying degrees, Lee diverts from reality and exaggerates the salient narrative traits of the earlier novel, thus offering a sequence of grotesque situations, an unreliable narrator, gleefully hostile and mean-spirited dialogues, gleefully and mean-spirited overweight characters maximising their power from positions of limited authority, and a more atrabilious critique of postmodernity.
The novel does not, however, attempt to convey a dystopian future: Lee was born in 1938, which means the action here takes place, earliest, in 2008, some twenty years in the future at the time of Perdue’s writing. The world of Lee is the world of the late 1980s, though here it lacks the flash associated with that period in America because Lee’s town is rural and unfashionable—which is to say it embodied the worst expressions of both.
Already in Lee we see the phrasal leitmotifs introduced in The Sweet Scented Manuscript transformed into tropes, or stock phrases: Lee reels, nothing surprises him anymore, etc.
As with other novels by Perdue, his disdain for today’s world and his dark sense of humour are the dominant elements in his narration. As was noted in another review, Perdue is—or, on reflection, seems—profoundly pessimistic about the future, but this does not mean that he rejects the possibility of rising above the present and creating something different, and better. Humour in Perdue’s case signals an Olympian detachment; Lee’s cane the instrument of creation that begins with destruction.
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