Pearson, T.R. 1956–
Pearson, T.R. 1956–
(Thomas Reid Pearson)
Born March 27, 1956, in Winston-Salem, NC; son of Thomas Elwood (a safety engineer) and Sarah Anne (a homemaker) Pearson. Education: North Carolina State University, B.A., M.A., 1980; graduate study at Pennsylvania State University, 1982.
Home—Carroll County, VA. Agent—Marian Young, The Young Agency, 156 5th Ave., Ste. 617, New York, NY 10010.
Writer and educator. Peace College, Raleigh, NC, taught in English department, 1980-81; worked as a house painter and carpenter, 1981-84; writer, 1984—. Writer-in-residence, University of Mississippi at Oxford, 1993.
Off for the Sweet Hereafter, Linden Press (Fort Collins, CO), 1986.
The Last of How It Was, Linden Press (Fort Collins, CO), 1987.
Call and Response, Linden Press (Fort Collins, CO), 1989.
Gospel Hour, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Cry Me a River, Holt (New York, NY), 1993.
Blue Ridge, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
Polar, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
True Cross, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Glad News of the Natural World (sequel to A Short History of a Small Place), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.
Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2006.
(With Augie Nieto) Augie's Quest: One Man's Journey from Success to Significance, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2008.
Contributor to A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood, edited by Alex Harris, University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Novelist T.R. Pearson has earned both critical and popular respect for his depictions of rural life in the American South. With the publication of his first book, A Short History of a Small Place, and his subsequent novels, the author generated wide acclaim and prompted comparisons to such celebrated regional writers as Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. While some fault Pearson's prose as digressive and repetitive, others extol it as authentically Southern; his comic yet compassionate views of humanity, say fans, uphold the South's unique storytelling tradition, mixing local humor and history.
"To enjoy Pearson's novels, the reader must have patience, for the author's method of storytelling is circuitous," observed a reviewer on the Southern Voices Web site. Because the story constantly moves backward and forward in time, "in Pearson's fiction, plot accrues from character and anecdote, rather than from action," the Southern Voices Web site biographer remarked. Pearson also "cannot help deflating pomposity and silliness" in his writing, in his characters' actions, and in his scenes. Pearson's "perfectly pitched comic voice transforms the humblest daily activities into the most significant and hilarious events," the biographer stated. Yet behind the humor there always lies a touch of sadness as the characters come to grips, in their own way, with their mortality.
Much of Pearson's fiction is set in the mythical town of Neely, North Carolina, which is introduced in his debut novel, A Short History of a Small Place. The setting—often compared to the fictional Yoknapatawpha county featured in most of Faulkner's works—represents a microcosm of the entire South. Inhabiting Neely are such families as the Pettigrews, Throckmortons, and Eppersons. Told through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Louis Benfield, A Short History of a Small Place gives detailed commentary on everyday existence. Foremost among Louis's observances is the life of spinster Myra Angelique Pettigrew, whose unexpected suicide leap from the local water tower sparks town gossip.
Although Pearson had difficulty finding a publisher to accept his first novel—several publishing houses thought it too digressive and oblique—critics enthusiastically received the book upon its publication by Linden Press of Fort Collins, Colorado. "A Short History of a Small Place is an absolute stunner," raved Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World, "the work of a writer … whose command of his material never falters." Like many reviewers, Yardley commended Pearson's skillful use of comedy to mask pain: "Always is laughter beneath which lurk sorrow and loss, and so it is in the rich layers of this novel." Yardley went on to write: "Pearson has found the stuff of life." Although Fran Schumer, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found the book "encumbered by tangents," the reviewer deemed it "more than an impressive debut; it is an accomplishment." In the Winston-Salem Journal, Linda Brinson judged A Short History of a Small Place to be "funny, lively and poignant. As a first novel, it is highly impressive, and Pearson will be an author to watch."
Pearson returns to Neely in his next book, Off for the Sweet Hereafter. As in A Short History of a Small Place, the action of this second novel is set off by the death of a town member. Following the quiet demise of Mrs. Throckmorton, nephew Benton Lynch begins—for no reason specifically linked to his aunt's death—a series of violent robberies. His misconduct escalates when he becomes entranced by eighteen-year-old Jane Elizabeth Firesheets, to whom Benton feels obliged to present gifts. Their relationship is stormy, and Benton's obsessions lead him at last to kill a man.
Like Pearson's first book, Off for the Sweet Hereafter was praised for both its comic and serious tones, as well as for its distinctly Southern flavor. Critiquing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, Anne Tyler commended Pearson's "skewed angle of vision, which mines hilarity from the somberest event." She further praised the author's "manically comic" yet "gentle" characters and his "ambling, wry tone." Similarly, Yardley applauded Pearson's "jaunty, loquacious narrative" that tells "a tale of twisted passion and lost hopes." The reviewer also noted that Off for the Sweet Hereafter's "meandering … style is hypnotic (and, it should be added, always under control), its depiction of small-town life is penetrating, and its unflagging affection for humanity in all its foibles is endearing. The world T.R. Pearson is constructing just gets larger and larger; the pleasures of entering it are irresistible."
With the publication of a third novel, The Last of How It Was, in 1987, once again Pearson earned wide acclaim. New York Times Book Review writer Patricia Henley extolled the author's "comic voice" and language that is "earthy and elaborate, creat[ing] a world the reader will long to return to with the same abandonment of the real world one might have experienced as a child."
Pearson tells more tales of life in Neely, North Carolina, in a fourth novel, Call and Response, published in 1989. In subsequent novels, however, he has moved beyond this particular town. Both Gospel Hour and Cry Me a River are set in rural Virginia. The setting is still part of the modern South, which New York Times contributor Judith Freeman called Pearson's "favorite literary landscape." Though a Publishers Weekly reviewer found Gospel Hour encumbered with a "sluggish, overburdened plot" that Pearson tells in "repetitious detail," Freeman considered the novel Pearson's "tallest and most hilarious tale so far." Gospel Hour concerns Southern Evangelicals. Its plot centers on Donnie Huff, who seems dead after falling into a river but is revived, prompting his mother-in-law, Opal, to deem this a miracle. She persuades Donnie to become a preacher and sell audiences the chance to touch the "downy patch" on his arm that she believes is the mark where Jesus touched him. These actions, Freeman pointed out, make for a "very funny book" that also "has called a certain kind of religion to account for its harsh and greedy fraudulence." Though Pearson is a "wickedly irreverent writer," Freeman wrote, he is also "an oldfashioned writer, a direct descendant of Laurence Sterne and Mark Twain, a moralist as well as a fabulist."
William T. Vollman, too, acknowledged the traditional aspects beneath the humor of Pearson's work. In his New York Times Book Review piece on Cry Me a River, Vollman called the novel "a minor Middlemarch in its vivid delineation of a large gallery of complex, driven figures." The book, which Vollman characterized as a "weird crime story," centers on the discovery by its small-town cop narrator of what appears to be a fatal love triangle. However, as Gene Lyons put it in Entertainment Weekly, the narrator keeps to himself the knowledge that it "was at the very least a rectangle" and "it wasn't quite love, either, but something darker and more unsettling." The numerous odd characters that Pearson adds to the novel, according to many critics, enhance both its humor and its depth. These characters, however strange, are brought "entirely alive," wrote Vollman. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised Pearson for communicating real compassion "through characters whom a less sensitive writer might dismiss as crude and unfeeling." Though Vollman, on the contrary, noted that the novel sometimes betrays "an absence of feeling," he wrote that its virtues more than make up for this slight flaw. Deeming Cry Me a River a book that "marries high literature to the crime novel," Lyons praised it as "a taut, evocative, quite funny, and intermittently frightening novel by an extraordinarily gifted writer clearly seeking a broader audience."
In Blue Ridge, which is also a murder mystery, Pearson departs from his small-town Southern formula, setting the story in New York City as well as rural Virginia. Despite the change in location, according to a contributor to Publishers Weekly, the novel "still resonates with whip-sharp dark humor."
The book focuses on two unrelated crimes: a murder discovered on the Appalachian Trail, investigated by southern cop Ray Tatum and his partner, an African American woman park ranger; and the murder of Ray's cousin Paul's son in New York City. This dual approach, according to Jacqueline Carey in the New York Times Book Review, allows Pearson to develop the central contrasts between the two characters and to maximize suspense. Praising Pearson's lush language, offbeat humor, and inventiveness, Carey wrote: "Practitioners and fans of the mystery genre have long used Faulkner to shore up its sometimes shaky reputation. Sooner or later, they'll be doing the same with T.R. Pearson."
Blue Ridge, according to Boston Globe contributor Andy Solomon, "shows a maturation of style, as entertaining as ever but with a muting of self-indulgence." In addition to his admiration for Pearson's colorful style and amusing anecdotal digressions, Solomon praised the author's complex characterizations. "Like Tolstoy," he wrote, "Pearson likes to give every character, however brief his existence, some picturesque characterizing brushstroke." Drawing a literary parallel between Pearson and Twain, Solomon concluded that "Pearson's [writing] is a Twain-like truth, purely American in flavor, that captures truly, exactly, how our most enchanting storytellers lie—the fact-bending, character-enlarging touches we've nurtured in our oral tradition from the antebellum South and starlit frontier West."
In Polar local sleaze connoisseur Clayton is well-known for his predilection for porn; he will regale anyone he sees with a deep analysis of the movies' plot points. Fortunately, he only comes to town every so often to restock on beer. One day, however, while standing in line at the checkout counter, Clayton has a conversion; he begins speaking in cryptic sentences, some of which suggest a precognitive ability. He refers to himself as Titus—the channeled spirit of a member of the British Polar Expedition of 1911. He becomes polite, contented, even serene; the porn addiction goes away. Some say it was the bar-code scanner at the store that reworked his brain, but nobody knows for sure. When the daughter of a local lawyer disappears, Titus's murky sayings hold the only hope that Deputy Sheriff Ray Tatum and his assistant, Kit Carson, have for recovering the child. A cast of quirky characters and "enough oddballs to cast a Coen brothers' film enliven the road to denouement," remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor. These characters, bearing names such as Meecham, Bodine, Wooten, and Quisenberry, appear and trigger their own stories. Along the way, readers meet a veterinarian couple with a peculiar sex fetish, a family of no-goods who operate their own produce stand with food stolen from local orchards, and a scammer with an elaborate way to make money from septic tanks. "Pearson has created a world all his own, a place that fans of southern storytelling won't want to miss," remarked Booklist contributor Thomas Gaughan.
Pearson's True Cross centers on former corporate accountant Paul Tatum, who has settled in small-town Virginia and is specializing in filing shady tax returns. Here he dates Mona, a divorced mom with a three-year-old daughter. Mona, however, is merely convenient company; Paul really longs for the gorgeous Maud Hooper, the wife of a local crime-connected lawyer. When Paul decides that Maud is being abused by her husband, he concocts a plan to rescue her, which is endorsed wholeheartedly by his neighbor Stoney. Since Stoney looks just like a character in a sixteenth-century painting, St. George and the Dragon, he thinks he has a calling to act chivalrously. While Paul and Stoney plot to save Maud, though she might not require rescuing at all, Paul tries to disengage from Mona, but with little success. "Tatum's withering indictment of a rural society … delivers enough laughs to draw attention from any structural defects," noted Frank Sennett in Booklist. "Brilliantly handled, this is a great book," remarked Robert E. Brown in the Library Journal. "Pearson always manages a telling look at human frailty," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Glad News of the Natural World is the sequel to Pearson's acclaimed A Short History of a Small Place. Protagonist Louis Benfield finds himself dispatched to New York to work for the same insurance company that occupied so many of his daddy's productive years—and, to remove him from the influence of a promiscuous lass named Fay. Louis starts out in the actuary office, but soon his skill at repair has him cheerfully demoting himself to work in the maintenance department. He becomes a handyman for several mob-types, once fixing a refrigerator stuffed with bodies of the mobster's targets. Louis also picks up some work as an extra in a commercial and as a driver for a Yemeni car service. When Louis's parents are killed in a car accident, he has a transcendent experience that leads him to vow to live the best life he can, in their memory. "Pearson has an uncanny knack for mixing melancholy and mayhem," observed Allison Block in Booklist. Pearson's "writing is satirical, humorous, irreverent, and endearing," wrote Library Journal contributor Joanna Burkhardt.
In his 2006 nonfiction book Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting, Pearson recounts the real-life, seafaring adventures of Willis, who worked as a deck hand at fifteen and jumped ship when it arrived in America. The German-born Willis was a self-educated man who wrote books and poems, none of which were ever published. He was an also an intrepid soul whose adventures included freeing prisoners from the notorious Devil's Island and making a solo trip across the Pacific on a raft when he was sixty years old. "Some readers will admire Willis's courage; others will lament his foolhardiness," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "All will be vastly entertained." Thomas Scott McKenzie, writing on the Pop Matters Web site, called Seaworthy "an amazing saga of the sea," adding that "Pearson renders the tale beautifully."
Pearson finds that he is not as much motivated to write as compelled. "It's not a love of language or a love of literature. It really is a compulsion," he commented in an interview on the Southern Voices Web site. "And most people I have met who write just have to write. Some have to be musicians; some have to be mathematicians. Some part of my brain directs me." For aspiring fiction writers, especially those having trouble seeing any progress or success with their work, Pearson has encouraging advice. "Anybody can write publishable fiction who practices," he stated in the Southern Voices interview. "There's no great gift. No great talent. We've all heard the story of the writer who said he started at fourteen writing beautiful prose, but that's just not true. Everybody starts and finally just gets better. Some apprenticeships are simply longer than others. I also think reading is important to writing. Reading every sort of book, so you can distinguish the good from the bad. Keep the good and stick at it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Biography, summer, 2006, Florence Williams and John Wray, review of Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting.
Book, November, 2000, R. Todd Smith, review of Blue Ridge, p. 75.
Booklist, September 1, 2000, Thomas Gaughan, review of Blue Ridge, p. 66; December 15, 2001, Thomas Gaughan, review of Polar, p. 705; January 1, 2003, review of Polar, p. 793; September 1, 2003, Frank Sennett, review of True Cross, p. 60; March 15, 2005, Allison Block, review of Glad News of the Natural World, p. 1267; May 15, 2006, George Cohen, review of Seaworthy, p. 18.
Boston Globe, November 12, 2000, Andy Solomon, review of Blue Ridge, p. M1.
California Bookwatch, October, 2006, review of Seaworthy.
City Paper (Baltimore, MD), October 11, 2000, Heather Joslyn, review of Blue Ridge.
Commonweal, April 9, 1993, Bethe Dufresne, review of Cry Me a River, p. 37.
Entertainment Weekly, January 15, 1993, Gene Lyons, review of Cry Me a River, p. 46.
Houston Chronicle, February 13, 2004, Sharan McBride, "Good Ol' Boys Romp in Their Paradise," review of True Cross.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2001, review of Polar, p. 1573; August 15, 2003, review of True Cross, p. 1041; March 1, 2005, review of Glad News of the Natural World, p. 255; April 15, 2006, review of Seaworthy, p. 396.
Library Journal, February 15, 1991, Ann H. Fisher, review of Gospel Hour, p. 223; September 1, 1992, Barbara Hoffert, review of Cry Me a River, p. 162; December, 1992, Edward B. St. John, review of Cry Me a River, p. 188; February 1, 2002, Robert E. Brown, review of Polar, p. 133; October 1, 2003, Robert E. Brown, review of True Cross, p. 117; March 15, 2004, Michael Rogers, review of A Short History of a Small Place, p. 112; April 1, 2005, Joanna Burkhardt, review of Glad News of the Natural World, p. 88.
Miami Herald, September 21, 2000, Georgia Tasker, review of Blue Ridge.
National Review, December 5, 1986, George McCartney, review of Off for the Sweet Hereafter, p. 56.
New Statesman and Society, October 22, 1993, Nick Kimberly, review of Cry Me a River, p. 38.
New Yorker, March 22, 1993, review of Cry Me a River, p. 111.
New York Times, June 20, 1985, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of A Short History of a Small Place, p. C24; April 7, 1991, Judith Freeman, review of Gospel Hour, p. 3.
New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1985, Fran Schumer, review of A Short History of a Small Place, p. 4; June 15, 1986, Anne Tyler, review of Off for the Sweet Hereafter, p. 9; November 1, 1987, Patricia Henley, review of The Last of How It Was, p. 13; April 11, 1993, William T. Vollman, review of Cry Me a River, p. 11; October 29, 2000, Jacqueline Carey, review of Blue Ridge.
People, August 5, 1985, Campbell Geeslin, review of A Short History of a Small Place, p. 11; July 28, 1986, Campbell Geeslin, Off for the Sweet Hereafter, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, June 20, 1986, Sam Staggs, interview with T.R. Pearson, p. 82; January 4, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of Gospel Hour, p. 56; November 2, 1992, review of Cry Me a River, p. 48; August 14, 2000, review of Blue Ridge, p. 327; November 19, 2001, review of Polar, p. 48; September 22, 2003, review of True Cross, p. 81; March 28, 2005, review of Glad News of the Natural World, p. 55; April 17, 2006, review of Seaworthy, p. 182.
Seattle Times, August 9, 2006, Michael Upchurch, review of Seaworthy.
Southern Living, April, 1993, James. T. Black, review of Cry Me a River, p. 112.
Time, July 14, 1986, Paul Gray, Off for the Sweet Hereafter, p. 64; January 25, 1993, review of Cry Me a River, p. 71.
Washington Post Book World, June 16, 1985; Jonathan Yardley, review of A Short History of a Small Place.
Winston-Salem Journal, July 14, 1985, Linda Brinson, review of A Short History of a Small Place.
Writer's Digest, December, 1986, Candy Schulman, "Good News for Unpublished Novelists," p. 21.
BookPage.com,http://www.bookpage.com/ (October 8, 2005), Lynn Hamilton, "Pearson's Latest Slice of Small-town Life," review of Polar.
Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (October 8, 2005), review of Polar.
Pop Matters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (August 9, 2006), Thomas Scott McKenzie, review of Seaworthy.
Southern Voices,http://www.southernvoices.org/ (October 8, 2005), "Introducing T.R. Pearson," critical essay on T.R. Pearson; interview with T.R. Pearson.