blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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Review | Big Cactus, by Sylvia Wilkinson
Owl Canyon Press, 2014

spacer Big Cactus

A great road trip novel needs a writer who knows roads and the cars that ride them. Sylvia Wilkinson’s career has often featured writing—both fiction and nonfiction—about cars and their enthusiasts, and her reputation for knowing cars constitutes its own legend. Stories say that Wilkinson left Hollins University in 1963 with an MA degree and a Porsche, which she bought with pinched savings from a graduate stipend (and she could change its tires wearing a minidress). She also spent years in a day job working as a scorer and timer in Formula One races for drivers such as Paul Newman, Al Unser, Sr., Bobby Rahal and Keke Rosberg. Wilkinson therefore understands something about the expansive, mythic power of cars and their place within American culture, and her writing captures an irresistible, adventurous spirit that envelops family, home, and growing up, all of which are integral in her newest novel, Big Cactus.

Wilkinson, always adept at capturing the adolescent experience, returns in Big Cactus to writing a sweeping coming-of-age tale that preserves the intimacy and immediacy of a quiet character novel. Sixteen-year-old Benny Foushee has never been far from his hometown of Summit, North Carolina, and even there, he feels unsettled and unsure of his future. At the start of Big Cactus, Benny has lost his dog, his girlfriend, and dozens of arguments with his loud, opinionated family members—arguments that lately have a lot to do with Benny’s ornery, slightly senile, 84-year-old Aunt Lucy. The Foushee family believes Aunt Lucy won’t be able to live on her own much longer, but Benny quietly considers himself Lucy’s only ally; he has spent enough time with her to understand her steely determination, and he’s convinced that she can take on anything or anyone. After the latest confrontation with the Foushees, Aunt Lucy, panicked at the idea of being sent away, begs Benny to help take her to Arizona to see the big cactus, an obsession she’s held ever since her father told her stories about visiting an ancient saguaro. Moved by her desperation, Benny packs Lucy and his new dog, Polar, into his 1965 GMC pickup and sets off in a general westerly direction, trying to get to Arizona before his truck breaks down completely.

A real sense of adventure—laced with the sustained, frantic tension of their flight—pervades the opening of Big Cactus, and the pace never slows. Great road trip novels have an energy and flavor few other genres can achieve, and in Wilkinson’s hands, Big Cactus sprawls into a fun, hilarious, and poignant story about the burden of family and the uncertainty of growing up, timeless themes explored with verve and originality in Wilkinson’s seventh novel. Wilkinson packs Big Cactus with charm and wit, and her character dynamics remain as sharply entertaining as ever. The abrasive, long-winded Lucy makes a perfect counterpart to Benny’s quiet practicality, and the novel would be worth the price of admission just for the crackling dialogue between them as they make their way through a long series of diners and motels with nothing to listen to but each other. Although Benny certainly considers her one of his favorite relatives, even he can’t help shuddering in embarrassment when Lucy comes into contact with strangers who haven’t grown up with her fussy, combative quirks, and Wilkinson sketches out these scenes with impeccable comedic timing:

She lifted up her half hamburger lid, the meat as red inside as catsup. “Get this one over to the cow doctor, Benny. I think we can save it.”

I felt my face heat up when the waitress passed us. “I wish you’d said something sooner, Aunt Lucy. You can’t send back a half eat-up hamburger.”

“Humph. The half I eat wont bleeding to death.”

Wilkinson’s command of southern vernacular and culture grounds the Foushees at every step of their journey. Benny’s matter-of-fact narration and Lucy’s colorful mannerisms make both of them effective storytellers, and their voices lend an element of earnest emotion to the family’s grim past. As Lucy’s mind dips in and out of lucidity, long-buried family secrets begin to emerge, and Benny finds himself at once repelled by the dark heartache his relatives have endured and drawn toward it. Benny shoulders a growing sense that no one in his family can escape their ties to one another, no matter how many miles he puts between them and Lucy. Wilkinson keeps the other members of the family—both the living and the dead—present throughout the novel, and their images haunt Benny, bleeding into his humdrum life back home: “Couldn’t be like my daddy and just say: ‘Papa died’, and leave it alone. Me, I’ve got to see him, bashing his face bloody inside the closet where Mother sends me almost every day for the oldest jar of tomatoes. . . . I might just have learned what leaving well enough alone means, Mother.” The Foushee family stories tangle together in Lucy’s vivid language, accelerating Lucy and Benny’s desire to put as much clear, open air between them and North Carolina as possible.

The concept of family, and all the loyalty and responsibility it entails, comes into even greater focus with the introduction of Tennessee Gentry, a rich teenage socialite the Foushees find stranded on the side of the road. After her father’s Porsche breaks down, Tennessee admits that she’s running away from home and decides to accompany them on their journey to the big cactus. Benny thinks of her as belonging to another world altogether, which may as well be true; the class divide sharpens as the novel unfolds, and as Benny spends more time with her, he feels a growing sense of shame that he may never understand the cavalier, open nature of someone born into easy money. While Tennessee is openly affectionate with Benny and Lucy, her past remains a puzzle, and Benny finds her almost impossible to read, her emotions written in a cultural language he cannot comprehend:

Right then I saw a Tennessee I hadn’t seen yet. It worried me a little. Maybe we were getting to why she was running away from home. . . . I waited for Aunt Lucy to say something while I watched Tennessee’s perfect pink fingernails ripping up her napkin. . . . I got to admit I’d rather see those smooth little hands clapping. I kept my hands in my lap because I couldn’t wash the fancy Porsche crud off of them.

Still, Benny falls for her hard and fast, and his panicked attempts to connect with her provide some of the novel’s most affecting scenes. When she gives him a comforting hug, he says simply, “I felt my heart break and fall in a pile of pieces in my stomach, I really did.” But he remains at a loss when he tries to cheer her up—his attempts at reciprocity never seem to land. “I didn’t hug her. I’m so chicken I hate myself.” If Tennessee’s character sometimes feels underdeveloped, that may be part of the point; the intersection between her life and Benny’s is driven purely by happenstance, and the moments they share often turn out to be empty riddles, lacking the meaning he wants them to have. “This was the saddest little girl I’d ever seen in my life,” Benny says, “and I didn’t know why.” For Tennessee, Benny may be no more than just a passing show, and Tennessee skates across the novel for the reader in much the same way, maddeningly unresolved, her story glimpsed in pieces that give us more a sense of how Tennessee wishes to appear, rather than who she truly is.  

But Tennessee’s fraught relationship with her own family allows her to find temporary solace with the Foushees, and she forms an undeniably close bond with Lucy. Wilkinson circles Lucy and Tennessee into a sisterhood of grief that Benny can’t quite reach; he dismisses his confusion by falling back on the gender divide: “I guess women see things different. I was real confused.” But Benny feels less whole for not being able to empathize fully, and there’s no real dismissiveness in his tone, only an evolving sense that he has stumbled upon another problem that he won’t be able to fix. His urge to repair the damage both Lucy and Tennessee have suffered sometimes keeps him from seeing what they can see, that loss and hurt can be felt for their own sake, with the knowledge that they may never heal completely.

Wilkinson manages the heavier moments with aplomb; for the most part, Big Cactus adopts a breezy tone and pace that makes its emotional snarls all the more affecting. Benny’s earnest, direct voice carries us through, underplaying the most moving moments with real tenderness. Throughout the novel, Benny seems preoccupied with finding a way to capture his experiences with some kind of emotional honesty: “I could make a good story out of it,” he says, “if I tell it right.” Lucy, too, imparts her hidden anxieties through stories, and Benny recoils against the idea that they may be untrustworthy or inauthentic, an issue compounded by Lucy’s memory issues:

“It wasn’t a bomb, Aunt Lucy. Look outside now. You listen to Tennessee. You got to learn to listen to people who know more than you do sometimes. It was a plain old forest fire, burned without even having a forest. You were telling me a story about things blowing up. . . . Telling me a fib. That’s not like you to do that, Aunt Lucy.”

“Naw, I wont. I was storytelling to pass the time.”

“You had me believing I was seeing what a bomb blew up, Aunt Lucy. You’re supposed to tell me the truth.”

Readers recognize the tender openness of Benny’s emotional honesty, but Benny still struggles with seeing how he fits into the world and how important his own voice is. He berates himself for sounding too much like the rest of his family—“I guess I don’t know who Benny Foushee sounds like any more”—and he finds his own stories trite and impossible to tell: “I’ve tried to do a story in my mind about what happened to me. It almost comes out like something to sing like a country song, but there is sure nobody around here to sing it to.” But his pure, intense desire to “tell it right” brings the whole novel together, granting a depth and subtlety to the rest of the characters that makes their lives matter, regardless of what heartbreaks they’re trying to leave behind. Benny—and Wilkinson—need not worry about whether they can bring those stories to life on the page; for readers who pick up Big Cactus, the Foushees’ journey across America becomes both truly transportive and unforgettable.  end  

Sylvia Wilkinson is the author of seven novels, most recently Big Cactus (Owl Canyon Press, 2014), On the 7th Day God Created the Chevrolet (Algonquin Books, 1993), and Bone of My Bones (Putnam, 1982). She has written numerous nonfiction books for adult and juvenile audiences on the subjects of racing and automobiles, and she worked for many years as an auto timer and scorer in Formula One races. She won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award in 1968 for A Killing Frost (Houghton Mifflin, 1967) and again in 1978 for Shadow of the Mountain (1977). Wilkinson has been the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship (1965–1966), a Mademoiselle Merit Award for Literature (1967), a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (1973–1974), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1977). She earned an MA from Hollins University in 1963 and has taught at numerous universities.

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