“In this debut literary novel, the residents of a Southern boardinghouse try (and fail) not to drive one another nuts.
In Asheville, North Carolina, Frank Reed is the owner of Carolina Court, a run-down Victorian house that he has long dreamed of turning into a quaint inn. Now, the Great Recession has made such a dream seem less likely than ever, but Frank is unable to sell the house in such an unforgiving market. Instead, he’s simply rented out every room he can to a peculiar assortment of tenants, the oddest of all being the aging Scotsman and odd-jobber Angus Saxe-Pardee. With the meddlesome positivity of a fairy godmother, Angus has taken it on himself to help Frank fill the remaining two rooms (specifically in the hopes of bringing a female presence to the building). One goes to the 6-foot-2 interpretive dancer and waitress Andromeda Megan Bell. She’s just emerged from a sudden breakup, though her ex-girlfriend won’t accept things are over and quickly begins turning up at the property. The other room goes to the sphinxlike Lida Barfield, a trauma ward nurse and breast cancer survivor. It’s like adding two Chihuahuas to a house full of cats (which also happens to be a description of the recent change to the house’s pet population). It’s a combination that seems destined to go down in flames. The novel, like the house, is a claustrophobic den of big personalities, absurd activities, and unlikely objects, all sharply rendered in Davis’ wry prose. Here, Angus recommends a book for Frank’s perusal: “The title was almost worn away. Frank could make out the words Eugenics and Sex. ‘It’s a little dated,’ Angus agreed, ‘and the fellow may have been a Nazi of some sort, but he has some salient points to make, particularly about dieting. A lot of your problems, actually.’ ” The tale unfolds at an easygoing pace, more interested in developing the characters and their relationships than launching into any complex plot. It’s a story about a certain place at a certain time—an Asheville caught between its past and future—and it’s a fine spot to visit for a while.
A leisurely comic, engaging tale about a boardinghouse’s strange denizens.”
“Anyone—especially Asheville natives, newcomers, and visitors—will greatly enjoy A History of Saints, a gentle-spirited satire of the kinds of people who land in that Appalachian sanctuary, ‘a no-kill shelter for the artists, the misfits, and the weird-do-well.’ Julyan Davis paints a vivid and affectionate portrait of the characters sharing a huge old ramshackle house, of their neighborhood and the slightly nutty city, and of the surrounding mountains, not just during the Great Recession of 2008, when the book is set, but in the years before and since. His first novel is a delight.”
Michael McFee, poet, critic, editor, and professor of English at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. McFee received the James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award from the Western North Carolina Historical Association.
A History of Saints (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, 2021), the debut novel by Julyan Davis, is a modern comedy of manners set during the Great Recession in the eccentric environs of Asheville, North Carolina (blundering “toward a theme park version of itself”). Funny and surprising, the novel brings together a truly bizarre cast of characters – including two feral chihuahuas – and explores, as the subtitle declares, “dog handling, courtly love, gardening and cooking, sexual fluidity, belly dancing, poetry, loss, and addiction.” That list barely scrapes the surface of the explorations that also include a missing chifforobe, a stolen shopping cart, a samurai sword, and “misguided sugar babies.”
The first sentence sets the antic pace: “At the next light Frank struck an individual dressed as a mattress.” Frank is Frank Reed, around whom the book mostly revolves. In an effort to save his grand old home, “Carolina Court,” Frank Reed rents out rooms and assembles a mismatched and colorful group of tenants. The mattress turns out to be one of those tenants, Angus Saxe-Pardee (sometimes known as “Angus Sex Party”), an erstwhile Scotsman.
Angus, in an effort to be of service – or to be in charge, takes it upon himself to run a classified ad to try to rent out Frank’s remaining space. “LIVE GONE WITH THE WIND FOR ONLY $400 A MONTH” reads part of the ad. Eventually the all-male household is joined by two women – Andromeda, a young woman seeking refuge from an affair that has ended badly, and Lida, an enigmatic traveling nurse. The complications and hilarity that ensue are full of surprises and laugh-out-loud banter.
A History of Saints is Davis’s first novel, but his writing is skilled and assured. A native of England, known primarily as a painter of the American South, his art frequently has a narrative flair, especially his touring large-scale painting installation based on Appalachian murder ballads and his “Demopolis” paintings inspired by an Alabama colony of French settlers. That French “Vine and Olive Colony” inspired Davis’s first forays into the South, which he has been painting consistently since the 1980s. The wry humor of A History of Saints is not unprecedented in Davis’s oeuvre; scattered through his work are wistful paintings of period-costumed monkeys and, my favorite, the stages of the moon represented by Moon Pies.
While reading A History of Saints, I was reminded at times of The Untidy Pilgrim, the first novel by Southern renaissance man Eugene Walter, in 1954. Davis’s writing is reminiscent of Walter’s in its devil-may-care whimsy and its unbridled joie de vivre in the complex and occasionally zany weaving of a narrative. Yet, there are poignant moments of insight such as Frank’s realization that it is “the objects we cherish that make a home — the paintings and keepsakes — not the walls around us or the roof above us.” A History of Saints is the work of an artist who is already a skilled storyteller, who has taken those skills to another medium with a novel that provides a welcome respite in challenging times.
Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre artist in Birmingham, Alabama, is on the editorial board of Southern Theatre magazine, regularly shares his essays in the online journal Professional Southerner and has most recently published reviews, papers, and articles for Alabama Writers’ Forum, Arkansas Review, Southern Theatre, and Theatre Symposium.