In T.R. Pearson’s Polar, another signature piece of Appalachian hilarity and pathos, itinerant deputy Ray Tatum returns with two familiar characters: an ever-flatulent mutt and Tatum’s sometime girlfriend, park service agent Kit Karson. (Fans of Pearson’s Blue Ridge will remember that Karson just happens to be — to the unending curiosity of certain Virginian citizenry — African-American.)
Pearson, now the author of seven novels, is a virtuoso of the rambling Southern narrative. But his storytelling of late — specifically in his two previous novels, Cry Me a River and Blue Ridge — has become a touch less circuitous, a bit cleaner. And he adheres to an ever so slightly less discursive style in the excellent Polar — a missing-persons mystery, both literally and figuratively.
Seems the town’s inveterate porn-channel watcher, Clayton (who actually gets wrapped up in the films’ smutty plots and impulsively dissects them for anyone within earshot), undergoes a dramatic and unexplained transformation in the grocery check-out line. Through the transmuting powers of the bar-code scanner or by means of something even more mystifying, Clayton becomes a nearly mute, cryptic oracle of local happenings.
Simultaneously, Clayton also embodies the specter of one Titus Oates, a member of the doomed 1912 English expedition to the South Pole who was lost in a whiteout (as Titus told his fellow tent mates, “I am just going outside and may be some time”). The terse prophecies of Clayton/Titus pertain to town events both large and small, and Pearson reveals their hidden meanings in mostly grand tragicomic style. One such prophecy directly intersects with a main thread of Polar: the fate of a mute, three-year-old girl, who has vanished in the local backwoods.
With the help of Kit, deputy Tatum investigates the missing girl’s whereabouts in a typical Pearson environment of malicious rednecks, clueless white trash, benign eccentrics, and disillusioned carpetbaggers. There is also an incident with Tatum’s windy dog that transforms the deputy’s usually unflagging composure.
Pearson has never romanticized Dixie, and his keen, often knee-slapping portraits of some wretchedly absurd Southerners can border on contempt. As a great writer, he consistently displays that necessary confluence of razor-sharp observation and detachment. But among Pearson’s novels, Polar leaves behind a particularly strong feeling of isolation after the laughter fades.