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Kristin Gore explores the Deep South in ‘Sweet Jiminy’

Kristin Gore’s third novel, “Sweet Jiminy,” paints a stirringly detailed portrait of a small Mississippi town haunted by hidden tensions and two decades-old-murders. Here’s an excerpt.

Jiminy Davis missed sleeping. She missed reading for pleasure and having friends and feeling confident that life held some certain purpose, but mostly, she missed sleeping. She’d always been very good at it, and she considered the fact that this skill was not valued in the corporate legal world of which she was now a part a deeply unfortunate fact. However, she was growing as accustomed to casual injustice as she was to the wincing way her thoughts now javelined through her chronically exhausted brain: both apparently came with the territory, and both gave her horrible headaches.

She knew that as a rising second-year law student she was lucky to have landed a summer associate job at a prestigious Chicago firm, yet this knowledge did nothing to alleviate a debilitating sense of panic. Because instead of feeling inspired and engaged — on the cusp of exhilarating professional opportunity — Jiminy felt listless and demoralized and utterly, prematurely, spent.

Perhaps it was this extreme exhaustion that prevented her from being seriously injured by the bike courier who slammed into her as she trudged, laden with heavy file folders and dark thoughts, through the courtyard between the firm’s twin towers. Instead of tensing and shattering, her body sank inward and down like a saggy mattress, and she found herself grateful for an excuse to close her eyes. When she finally opened them, she noted that the red-faced courier was wearing a T-shirt that read “Tupelo Honey.” As she stared up at it, surrounded by hundreds of billable hours of work she didn’t believe in, splayed around her on the hot concrete, something deep inside her suddenly pulled up short. And she understood, instinctively, that she was done.

Lyn Waters had just decided to kill herself when the phone rang. It was a nightly ritual — the suicide plan, not the phone ringing — so her decision hadn’t left her particularly rattled. The phone, on the other hand, had made her gasp.

“Evenin’?” she answered uncertainly.

It was definitely evening. It was the kind of syrupy summer evening that trapped minutes and held them to its pace, making it very easy to forget the time.

“It’s not too late, is it, Lyn?” the anxious voice of Willa Hunt asked over the line.

“No, ma’am,” Lyn answered.

At seventy-six, Lyn was five years older than Willa, but she’d been calling her “ma’am” for more than five decades. No one would have ever thought that Lyn was the least bit bothered by this. It would have been as pointless as being bothered by the moon.

“Well, I wouldn’t be calling at this hour, but I just talked to Jiminy, and it sounds like she’s headed this way.”

For the briefest of moments, Lyn was cast backwards forty years. She brought her hand to her throat, catching her breath for the second time. But then she dropped her arm dully, feeling silly and self-indulgent. Of course Willa meant the other Jiminy.

“Isn’t that nice,” Lyn replied in a soothing, neutral tone, meant to calm her own inner turmoil as much as to convey the good-natured pliability Willa expected of her.

“She’s getting on a bus tomorrow, so I was just hoping you could come help me get things in some kinda order.”

Lyn normally only worked for Willa on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Friday was her day to tend to her own life. Still, she appreciated being needed, even if her acquiescence felt a bit compulsory.

“Well, that sounds fine. I’ll see you in the mornin’,” she replied.

Lyn’s hand trembled a bit as she hung up the phone, another thing she should have been used to by now. As she resettled into her bed, feeling the ache of an old back injury, she thought again about her death. Every night she resolved to do herself in, and the lightness she felt once the decision was made helped her fall into a peaceful sleep. Each morning, she felt she’d had a long enough break from the world to try it anew. By noon, she’d know she’d been duped.

But for now, she closed her eyes, cradled a pillow in her arm, and willed her dreams to claim her.

Willa watched her granddaughter out of the corner of her eye as she made a careful turn off the interstate onto the access road that led to town. Jiminy had stopped crying a few miles back and was now staring straight ahead with a distant, pensive expression. Willa worried that something must have gone terribly wrong for her to come running to Fayeville, of all places. And so suddenly, away from so many more alluring plans. They hadn’t seen each other in years, so for Jiminy to spontaneously visit was already strange. For her to seem so fragile was downright alarming.

Still, Willa hadn’t pressed Jiminy to explain herself. She knew better than most that some things just didn’t want to be talked about. In addition to its many charms and eccentricities, her tiny corner of the world was riddled with sad secrets. Had her granddaughter sensed that? Was that why she’d come — because she’d needed a place of solace to keep her own unhappy counsel?

“There’s the new restaurant,” Willa remarked as they cruised past its yellow painted porch. “Mexican. Can you believe it?”

Jiminy stared at the caramel-skinned young woman sweeping the pavement in front, captivated by the way her long braid was swinging in rhythm with the broom, hypnotizing passersby.

Jiminy remembered roller-skating across that same concrete as a girl, counting the cracks that rattled her teeth. Now she found herself counting again, silently, as she rolled past familiar, faded buildings. There was the old movie theater, abandoned for years, and the feed mill, and the teeny-tiny bank that looked like it could only handle toy money. There was the Comfort Inn, which had never done much business. The four hundred Fayevillians who populated the town put any guests up in their own homes. They considered the motel nice but unnecessary, like car washes or dry cleaners. They believed in handling things themselves.

As a child, Jiminy had always considered Fayeville the perfect size. There was enough to intrigue, but not overwhelm, at least as far as she knew. So she’d always felt comfortable here. Watching things slide by her now, she yearned for that feeling to again overtake her.

Excerpted from "Sweet Jiminy" by Kristin Gore. Copyright 2011 Kristin Gore. Published by Hyperion.

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