Lightning Bug (Delacorte Press, 1970) is the first of Donald Harington’s Stay More novels. Stay More is a mythical and dying Arkansas town where many of Harington’s novels are set. This one is narrated by a five-year-old boy, Dawny, who, as he makes clear relatively early on, is Harington himself, or at the least a fictional Harington. Lightning Bug is Dawny’s name for the woman of his dreams, Latha Bourne, and the center of this novel. She is 38 years old and, as we soon learn, a person with a rich and varied past that includes rape, the loss of a daughter, incarceration in a mental hospital, sex in a cave, sleeping in the nude, loneliness, and more. The lightning bug of the title suggests she is the object to which the other important character in the novel, not to mention a few of the secondary characters, are inevitably drawn.
This novel has its attractions. The witty, dialect-heavy repartee between residents of Stay Moore can be hilarious. The arguments among the various suitors who come every night to pay court to Sonora are an example. The main character herself is a truly unusual character. But she is surrounded by residents of Stay More who often as not wander into caricature and Lil’ Abner stereotype. We have a moonshiner who is holding captive a revenue agent. The agent talks so much that he manages to seduce the moonshiner’s daughter even while he is chained up. The Stay More medical doctor offers his services to Latha if she needs a particular kind of satisfaction. Everyone is hot to have sex all the time. No one seems to have many scruples.
The five-year-old narrator, who is really narrating from some point in the future, and who makes clear that he is imagining the story as he’d like it to be as much as he is telling it as it happened, is a lot to swallow. For a five year old he understands a whole lot. He spies on people in the outhouse, people making love, people getting dressed. He’s also in love with Latha, so much so that he vows to turn her into the stuff of legend, or at least of great fiction. In one creepy scene he stays the night with Latha and after seeing that she sleeps in the nude insists on sleeping nude with her. She allows it. This is one of the great moments of his five-year-old life and of his adult life as well—he can never let it go, and this accounts I suppose for his passion in telling the story. Dawny is not convincing to me as a five-year-old.
The trouble is that this book is not great fiction. The rich, sometimes lovely prose strains at artfulness. The best description in the novel is that of the sound of the metal closer on a screen door (“WRIRRRAANG”). At one point Harington has bullfrogs, crickets and cicadas, and katydids narrating through the sounds they make at night. The self-consciously intense and playful and overdone prose—in sections of the novel, mainly at the beginning and end—insists on the wonder of the story being told, rather than letting the story speak for itself. It’s difficult sometimes to sift out the fictional facts from the imaginings here. The novel begins and ends with italicized and impressionistic monologues by the young narrator commenting on himself and the story and on Latha. He several times interrupts the main narrative with sections in which he imagines what he wants to think happened. What’s the point?—the point seems to be that some events he as the 5-year old narrator would not rather accept as having happened, so he comes up with an alternative narrative, addressed directly to Latha, in which he offers what he thinks she might like to have happened, or what he would like to believe. It’s as if the miscomprehending mind of the 5-year old is all mixed up in the more adult and yet still relatively puerile mind of the grownup narrator.
The entire novel works towards the moment when Latha and Every will get together and make love—but he refuses to have that moment until they marry, and she refuses to marry him until they have sex. Their arguments over this issue are amusing but not without frustration. And although by the end of the novel we know the moment has occurred, we never get the satisfaction of knowing specifically that it has occurred—although Harington gives us in candid detail the other sexual episodes in Latha’s life with and without Every.
Every was the first boy Latha ever slept with. She was 12 and he was 13. They remain lovers throughout their early years, but she goes to another town for high school and meets other people. We are given to believe (mostly by Every’s own tall-tale testimony) that he devotes his entire existence to loving Latha—he goes to war to protect her fiancé. He becomes a preacher because he thinks he’s made a pact with God to cure her of her mental disease. He claims that God speaks directly to him and instructs him in what to do. Yet he also robs the town bank, rapes Latha violently, and four years later after rescuing her from the mental hospital basically rapes her again while she is in a catatonic state. Yet everyone is OK with this. We’re to find him, I think, a persistent and admirable suitor. Or maybe we’re simply supposed to find him typical of his Arkansas hillbilly kind. At the least he’s a compelling liar.
One explanation for all of this excess is that it’s the mythmaking, legend-weaving mind of the narrator Dawny. And often Dawny is embellishing tales already exaggerated when they come to him—e.g., Every’s stories of his World War II heroics, and his rescue of Latha from the mental hospital. Another explanation is that it’s just the way Donald Harington thinks novels should be written. In any case, this one often seems out of control, at moments beautiful, at others erotic, at still others juvenile and self-indulgent. Harington insists so fervently on the special nature of his topic that he seems to feel he’s been issued indulgences for all the excess. However, I will read another of the Stay More novels, just to see how matters develop.