Love in Tennessee is a fictional memoir of the author’s growing up in a small town set in the mountains of East Tennessee in the 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s. Although the period is before cell phones and jet travel, it is a universal tale that could have happened anywhere, nearly anytime. Some essentials never change. It could have happened today in Des Moines or the Catskills. It could have happened in 19th Century England in the provincial town of Middlemarch, as George Elliot so elegantly presented it.
From the earliest the author dreams of the larger world outside, especially the glowing, beckoning lights of New York, but the lessons he learned, essentially in the varieties of love – its sorrow, dramas, and ennoblements – he learned in his long lost hometown from observing fellow dwellers and on his own. He felt the first stirrings of sexuality that often precedes love while crawling as a baby among silken legs of women. He found the intoxicating pleasure of exchanging views of hidden parts of the anatomy with a young neighborhood girl before either were six in his dilapidated backyard barn. In fact, the first chapter of the book, Secrets of the Barn, introduces much of the erotic that follows in the book.
Subsequent chapters show others in town coping with love and desire – the solid citizen, who abandons family and friends to run away with a mulatto, secretary to a sadistic urologist; the sexy single school teacher who teases and excites the narrator almost beyond endurance, and takes him up on his first scary plane ride; the star football player who loses his leg and his wife stays suffocatingly with him while he spirals downward; the narrator’s best friend who may be gay; an extremely fat neighbor who may or may not be the father of his young bride’s child; and several others caught in the maelstrom of desire and obsession and their aftermath. In this way, the patchwork narrative resembles Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. It is laced with humor but finally with a bitter-sweetness.
The final part of the work, after a culmination of observations and first hand experiences, the narrator is hit with a thunderbolt when he stumbles into the arms of his first true love. In a way, she stands for what Tennessee has taught him about love and what Tennessee mean to him. When he leaves her, he is not only leaving her physical presence but Tennessee itself. The inevitable ending may be preordained, but it is devastating and complete.