Readers of Louis Flint Ceci’s first novel, Comfort Me, which focuses on the story of three high school friends growing up in small-town Croy, Oklahoma, will recognize many of the characters in his latest novel If I Remember Him. Although set fifteen years before the action of Comfort Me, during the summer of 1952, the actual action of If I Remember Him begins seventeen years before that, with the aftermath of a weather event so legendary, it has more than one name: The TriCounty Twister, the Cyclone of ’35, the Wild Horse Tornado, an example of what the indigenous Chicksaw call “Crazy Woman Weather.” Such a weather event nearly wiped Croy off the map: many families were wiped out, and plenty of others lost all they had; Lerner Philip Alquist, the town’s wealthiest citizen, lost his beloved wife Ada. Overwhelmed by grief, and now devoid of any human warmth or feeling, Alquist manages to manipulate the City Council into approving the plans for a library as a memorial for his dead wife. Progress is slow as the city rebuilds, so it is only after a Depression, World War, and another war before the building can finally be dedicated. The last piece, the crowning touch, is a sculpture by Sunny Sohi, a final homage to Ada.
Into all the small-town drama enters an outsider: Andy Simms, the new music director at the Mt. Hermon Bible Church. Earnest, college-educated, and full of zeal, he is eager to succeed at his first musical ministry. But despite his best attempts at building bridges among the different communities of Croy, he only exacerbates the not-so-thinly-veiled bigotry barely hidden beneath the surface: the racism, religious dogmatism (and, when he takes up with Sohi, the sexual intolerance) all erupt, with lasting effects on all of the inhabitants of Croy.
Croy, ostensibly a small town, is an eclectic mix of White, Negro, and Indian—both American Indian, and Indian Indian. Not that Croy is a melting pot, by any means; rather it seems to be a mosaic, with its tiles carefully organized by color. Croy mirrors its creator, who demonstrates a wide-ranging interest in numerous subjects, many of which crop up throughout this novel: religion, poetry, music, even mathematics. (How often has the Fibonacci series been sited during a City Council meeting, really? And yet, within the context of the story, it works.) Far from depicting his characters as uneducated hicks, Ceci has done a stellar job of creating his characters, all with fully developed histories and interconnections (so typical of any small town). Ceci really shines as a writer when his characters grapple with matters of faith, having them speak with heart-felt eloquence. (And can I just say that I don’t think that I have ever read a more beautiful sexual communion between two men? There, I’ve said it.)
Prior visitors to Croy of course, will already have a sense of how the conflicts between the clashing personalities will play out; and even astute first-time readers of Ceci will know that, in 1950’s small-town mid-America, this story surely will not, cannot, end well. To his credit, Ceci does not shrink from depicting the virulence of bigotry and the toll it exacts on both its victims and perpetrators; virulence that extends years beyond the events retold here. And yet Ceci manages to inject some hope for the citizens of Croy, hope that might not come to fruition until Comfort Me, or even until the forthcoming Jacob’s Ladder.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske