Nick White, according to the Washington Post, writes like ‘Tennessee Williams transposed for the 21st century.’ His excellent debut novel How to Survive a Summer explored the lingering trauma experienced by a man who spent four weeks in a gay conversion camp as a teenager, showing how the events of that summer continued to have negative effects on his work, his headspace, and his most significant relationships. His new collection of short stories, Sweet and Low, follows a similar thread. The characters in these pieces have uncomfortable pasts, and come from families where each member has a share in the damage. The trauma ripples through generations – pain begets pain begets pain.
In an interview with the DM Online , White noted ‘a big narrative is when you’re gay and from a small rural area, you leave the place as soon as possible and go to a big city. While that narrative is true for some folks, it’s not true for everyone.’ Sweet and Low focuses largely on these under-served narratives, providing glimpses into rural Southern lives where queerness is othering at best, and outright fatal at worst. In the first part of the book, these themes manifest in unrelated snapshots: the lives of the wife and gay lover of a recently deceased doctor orbit one another thanks to a WWII pocket watch; a gay couple whose relationship is on its last legs bicker over who took whose hand when fleeing from a bear. Most of the relationships in this section of the book are deeply flawed or ill-advised, borne out of being the only two gay men in a given room rather than any sort of genuine shared attraction. More right place, right time than right person. These are covert couplings, illustrating all too well the trade-offs of these rural queer lives; the characters take what they can get. Nick renders these stunningly emotional portraits in perfect colour, speaking to wider personal disasters by honing in on small moments of conflict.
This feeling also defines the second half of the book, which zeroes in on the life of Forney Culpepper from varying perspectives. This half, titled ‘The Exaggerations’, focuses less on rural queerness and more on familial and local trauma. Forney’s life is shaped and scarred by inherited factors; like his father’s heart condition, his uncle’s romantic entanglements, or his mother’s lost potential. Nick’s depiction of a life that feels pre-destined to disappoint insights sympathy even in moments when Forney is most unkind, or unlikable to those around him. In a moment of insight, the teenage Forney notes that he and his family are left with ‘…only the hard silences left by the people we wanted – the people we craved the most – who had already moved on in their lives without us.’ More broadly, this is the legacy of all the characters throughout Sweet and Low. It is a fantastic work of love, loss, and compromise, set under a wide Mississippi Delta sky.
Sweet and Low by Nick White is available now from Blue Rider (9780399573651, h/b, £19.99)