Boonville is an interesting first novel by a creative writer. Robert Mailer Anderson has a way with words, a direct way of saying what he means. Forget useless metaphors and similes. He is a young man who was lucky to emerge from a childhood that would doom most. He, perhaps, is still harboring plenty of pentup anger, or resentment, but thankfully has turned to writing as a constructive means for release. Boonville is the kind of story Steinbeck might have written if he was writing books today—Cannery Row, 2003. Or maybe not. While reading Boonville, the readers senses a constant foreboding dark cloud hovering overhead, never a sense of sunlight or color. Everything is in shades of gray. Anderson sets the mood like an itch at the center of your back. Scratch, scratch, scratch. It is not reachable; it is insatiable.
John Gibson lives in Florida. He is married to a woman who aspires to get to the top of everything she encounters; whatever she has is never good enough. His parents are a disappointment. When his grandmother passes away and leaves him her home in Boonville, a hick town populated by 715 people, John sees the opportunity to get away from his failing life and start over. It isn't really a shock when he learns that his wife wants no part of this plan. And in a way, maybe John was hoping she would not come with him, anyway. A clean break for his fresh new start.
Once John arrives in Boonville, he asks himself the obvious questions: What in the world am I doing here? How could I leave everything I had in Florida for this -- two bars, a couple of stores, and an area full of seemingly uneducated, animal-like townies who have developed their own language and dialect? Boonville is littered with lesbians who are part of a harsh women's movement against anything a male might have an interest in. There is the Blindman who deals in dope, and there are brothers who act like head-butting battling rams.
Stopping in at one of the bars, John meets the beautiful Sarah. She and her mother live at a commune of deviant hippies still trying to keep a hold on the Sixties. Free sex, drugs, and no running water. Worse, Daryl, the man she divorced two years ago, is big. He's jealous. He beats up on anyone who so much as smiles at Sarah. Despite the warnings, John engages in her company. He learns she is wild. Reckless and unhappy. And that the rumors about Daryl's undying love are painfully true.
John's grandmother is a constant memory in his mind. Like a deranged Forrest Gump his skull reverberates with her past words of wisdom reminding him of rights and wrongs, of lies and truths. Her home, littered with whittled wood squirrel sculptures, is eerie. The squirrels all have the same angry expression, and John has no idea what to do with them all.
Sarah is an artist looking to express herself, her pain, questions about a God—or a Heaven without a God. She and John hit it off in an odd way. For many of the same reasons that John came to Boonville—plus a few more—she must now leave the hick town. John makes a last-ditch attempt to show her how much he cares for her. He enlists the help of the town, regardless that this blatant expression of affection that is sure to enrage Daryl.
Boonville seems like it is over before it gets a chance to begin. The author, hopefully, is working on a second visit to the small backwoods town. The story's end seems more like a place for a next beginning. Anderson's narrative, entertaining and brutally honest, is full of hardcore explanation and insightful inadequacies. Boonville is troubling, but also captivating.