Buried gold, time travel, and cannons

LOOK BACK ALL THE GREEN VALLEY By Fred Chappell Picador USA 279 pp., $24

Fred Chappell can't be trusted. His new novel, "Look Back All the Green Valley" promises a funeral, but instead he delivers a book sparkling with life and charm.

That's the kind of misleading delight the story's narrator enjoys, too, when he comes back home to put his parents' affairs in order. Jess Kirkman interrupts his translation of Dante's "Inferno" just long enough to find a burial plot for his ailing mother and clean out his late father's workshop.

Sickness, death, graveyards, and nine levels of hell. Are we having fun yet? Oddly, we are. Kirkman blends family history and myth into an enchanting journey of rediscovering his father.

When the story opens, an administrative error has left no room for Cora Kirkman to be buried next to her husband, who died 10 years earlier. Though seriously ill, Cora is determined to correct this problem before she dies, even if she has to depend on her witty son.

Whispering the cantos under his breath, Jess sets out into his old Appalachian hometown to find a farmer willing to accept his parents for eternity. But he quickly finds the opposite problem: So many people remember his parents kindly that Jess must choose from dozens of offers.

As he travels through these quiet homes, meeting people he hasn't seen since he was "no bigger than a possum baby," everyone has a favorite story about his dad - half Lyndon Johnson and half Captain Marvel. "He belonged to that breed that used to be called 'a man's man,' " Jess notes, "a fellow interested in 'manly' pursuits like hunting, fishing, trapping, playing football, wrestling crocodiles, skinning mules, and fighting cannibal tribes bare-handed. He believed in all the bromides about how science equals progress, sports builds character, and that courage in the face of danger is the noblest quality of the soul."

One old woman asks if the story about his father flying a kite with firecrackers on its tail is true.

"The kite story had passed from the realm of family reminiscence into folklore and looked now as if it were on its way to epic status," Jess thinks. "I'd heard it from my mother and father and grandmother, from aunts and uncles, from friends, acquaintances, and rank strangers. There were many versions of the tale, sometimes similar, sometimes exotically different. When I tried to answer the question, it was no longer a simple one; she was requiring me to measure the amount of historical truth in a myth. So I ducked the issue. 'I think it's true enough for its purpose,' I said."

That's the kind of fanciful truth this novel celebrates, the truth of stories so essential to one's family that their historical accuracy is entirely beside the point. This isn't just about reclaiming his father, but about reclaiming a child's perspective of his father, complete with all the dormant delight and awe.

Chief among his father's mysteries is an old workshop - Dr. Electro's secret laboratory - in the basement of a clock store. There he finds notebooks of secret code, a cannon, drawings of fantastic rockets, a treasure map of ladies' names, an advertisement for "Satanic Enterprises Amalgamated," and the sayings of Fugio: "I tell time, but it does not reply."

As he unravels these promising mysteries, Jess recalls all the strange characters of his youth, like Uncle Zeph, who delayed meals for hours with prayers of "epic length and enunciatory oddness. His voice was as highpitched and insistent as a mosquito's nasal sostenuto; it alternated among a whine, a screech, and a mumble. It made a sound like a fat man trying to get comfortable in a new splint-bottom chair. It had not even been determined if they were actually words or only calls of a very rare bird trying to search out a mate that might not exist."

This story of stories isn't even above jumping into science fiction when the reminiscence-powered rockets are ready to fire.

Kirkman has written a witty, tender novel with a dash of tall-tale silliness. What promised to be a week of dreary cleaning and final arrangements turns into a celebration of a life's great moments.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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