Nashville author Ed Tarkington tackles unrequited Southern Gothic romance
If only love can break your heart, then it must be a corollary truth that only a great, doomed first love can stand out above a landscape of broken-heartedness. Tennessean Ed Tarkington, a long-respected English teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, has published a noteworthy debut novel that fuses together unrequited romance, family dysfunction, and gruesome murder mystery, set against a Southern Gothic backdrop, both familiar and inventive.
A slow-building thunderstorm of a novel coming across the Blue Ridge mountains, it may make the arthritis in your soul flare up a little, bringing to mind the first time your heart was broken, or raising a shudder at the wrong roads you yourself just missed going down.
Tarkington’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”—yes, that is the book’s title, just like the Neil Young song from the 1970’s—resonates with the rock-n-roll soundtrack of that era, when the eight-year-old narrator, Rocky, begins to understand the convoluted family whirlwind that roils around him: his disenchanted, scornful father; his wounded, vulnerable mother, the Old Man’s much-younger second wife; the eerie half-life of a half-sister who died in childhood; and most significantly, the ne’er-do-well older half-brother, Paul, whose feckless rebellions drive the young narrator’s ambitions and his longing for awareness and identity.
The book follows a straightforward narrative, mostly taking place in southwestern Virginia over about an eight-year period, recounted by the narrator long afterward. Below the surface, there are suggestions of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the youthful protagonist, a local “haunted” house, crime drama, and racial injustice with a surprising twist; and also William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness”, as a demon-troubled young woman writhes in a web of societal and familial entanglements.
“As a writer, I prefer traditional storytelling for the most part,” says Tarkington. “I have great admiration for technically innovative texts, particularly Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!”, Morrison’s “Beloved”, and the novels of the Latin American Boom writers, especially Carlos Fuentes.
“I think the best way to think about narration is to put the characters first and let them dictate how the story should be told. Unconventional techniques sometimes dazzle, but just as often, they can seem gimmicky or distracting.”
As a full-time teacher and wrestling coach, Tarkington has pursued creative writing as a side career. “Humbling” and “not a little surreal” describe his feelings on being published, after many years of striving, by Algonquin Books, a premier small literary press founded by the legendary writer and professor, Louis Rubin.
“One of the advantages of being a high school teacher with young kids of my own is that I get to spend a lot of time studying the differences between the ways we see the world from ages eight to fifteen to eighteen to forty,” Tarkington says.
Southern literature touchstones abound in this book: Virginia nouveau-gentry on horseback, a spooky old woman with “second sight,” running off with the girl next door, losing the homestead, coming of age with an older woman, gaining insight in the high school play.
Reading this book rather suggests watching a play, illuminated by a spotlight scene by scene, while the rest of the story’s universe waits off-stage in shadowy stillness. In its essence, this ambitious first novel treats of “the shadowy nature of the subconscious,” in the author’s words, and “the underlying dreadfulness in modern experience,” in the words of Tennessee Williams. Like an inverted detergent commercial, these darks come out really dark.
“The side effects of overpowering love—jealousy, lust, desperation, and anxiety, to name a few—are enormously difficult to overcome, and can cloud one’s judgment in really catastrophic ways,” Tarkington says. “But in the end, true love is about sacrifice, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, and trust, and loyalty, in spite of everything. This is the lesson my characters are trying to learn, and the one I struggle imperfectly to live according to, every day.”
Sewanee School of Letters Events
Sewanee School of Letters at The University of the South, located in nearby Sewanee just under an hour’s drive from Chattanooga, offers a number of free public literary events this summer.
Country singer Bonnie Bishop, a School of Letters creative writing student, performs June 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Angel Park; poet Jennifer Habel reads June 15 at 4:30 p.m. in the Gailor Auditorium; playwright David Roby presents a one-man show inspired by Tennessee Williams’ life and work on June 17 at 7:00 p.m. at McCrory Hall, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School; novelist Chris Bachelder reads from his works June 22 at 4:30 p.m., Gailor Auditorium; John Grammer and Neil Shea discuss the legacy of “New Journalism,” June 29 at 4:30 p.m., Gailor Auditoriuim; and novelist Jennine Capo Crucet reads from her works, July 6 at 4:30 p.m., Gailor Auditorium.
All times listed are Central time zone. The University is located at 735 University Ave. in Sewanee (and is well worth a visit any time).