Most of the inhabitants in Brad Watson's novel The Heaven of Mercury are lifelong friends, grown familiar over the years from school days to adulthood. The central figure in the drama, Finus Bates describes his youth and the quirky folks who live in this slowly fading town, a town the century passed by on its way to the future. They grow beside each other like shoots sprouting on a roadside patch of dirt, a variegated and colorful garden with the occasional false-flowering weed. Watson's characters have that same dark countenance so familiar to Southern Gothic writers: peculiar, moody and introspective.
On the cusp of adulthood in 1916, their world is still narrow enough for people to believe that man controls his own destiny. As the years pass, the façades fall aside, revealing the usual human traits. Finus falls in love with Birdie Wells that summer, but loses her through a lack of assertiveness. Instead Birdie weds Earl Urquhart, handsome and arrogant, not a kind man. But he does love Birdie. And she is too naive to understand how this marriage will use up much of her adult life, with little return other than their children.
Meanwhile, Finus Bates marries Avis Crossweatherly, a stolid young woman determined that he return her affection and unwilling to face reality. Finus views this partnership "as a long and unhappy marriage, and more than thirty years would pass before he would truly escape it…what he came to see as a long journey through a tangled wood." He ponders the cruelest thing of all, showing neither love nor hate, but indifference.
The story is peppered with chapters about the people of Mercury: the undertaker with a dark secret of his own; the black maid who works for Birdie and Earl; her old auntie, Vish, maker of potions and cures. All create the unique mix of personalities that gives The Heaven of Mercury its essential charm. Like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, only with fewer precocious inhabitants, The Heaven of Mercury is a paean to small-town America, especially the South.
Mercury offers a glimpse of the simple life, before industrialization and modern inventions change the face of downtown Anywhere, USA. Currently identified by shopping malls and fast food restaurants, the "Main Streets" of the past have been all but erased by technological advances. Watson tells the intimate, personal stories of people who lived through almost a century, one where the landscape changes irrevocably. Here are the tales of our grandmothers, aunties and uncles, full of memories and anecdotes of a quieter, safer time.
Some readers may not have the patience to linger over these idiosyncratic reminiscences, but they most likely are young, not yet nostalgic for the dignified days at the beginning of a new century - those long-ago days when the myriad sounds of nature could still intrude into an afternoon; the raucous squawking of birds, the wind brushing a branch against a window, the occasional crunch of tires on gravel, all belong to memory. Now everything is filtered through the white noise of television or the drone of freeway traffic.
But for anyone who has watched a relative, gnarled and wizened, drifting off to another time, another place, this beautiful novel quietly opens a door to a past that no longer exists, where faded photographs come to life, if only for a while.