I enjoy Patty Friedmann's writing and quirky sense of humor. Except I'm really slow in getting through all her books. Published in 2004, I've only just finished 'Secondhand Smoke'. (Reviews here, here and here.)
Living across the cemetery in the small house on Valence Street in New Orleans, 67-year old main protagonist Jerusha Bailey is grumpy, uncouth and cantankerous. She's not above slapping her adult children or racism. She thinks her adult children Wilson and Zib (short for Elizabeth) believe that she killed her cancer-stricken (brain stem tumor) husband and their father, Woodrow.
Forty-something Wilson and Zib live away from New Orleans. Wilson in Chicago as a university professor and Zib in Florida as the assistant manager of a Winn-Dixie. Jerusha's neighbor is Angela (who sounds like a good-for-nothing), who is Zib's high school friend. The story is told from the perspectives of Jerusha, Wilson and Zib, following what happens to each after Woodrow's death and cremation in June, and the funeral later in October. The events that happen along the way are ridiculously funny. A tad sad, but hilarious in the way families are dysfunctional.
Then one night, Jerusha somehow managed to burn her house to a crisp, and ends up in hospital for presumably smoke inhalation and light scratches. She refused to call her children, prefering to live on the streets for a few days till Wilson came to get her and brought her to his house in Chicago. She's still grumpy and seemingly 'ungrateful', has a thing against her son converting and becoming Jewish. Jerusha's a total bully. What do you do with a mother like that? You either spend your life fighting or simply walk away and not care.
The last chapter of the book is narrated by Zib, who comes back to New Orleans to look for Jerusha, but gets caught up in Angela's life, then her eventual death. She then somehow 'permanently' moves back to New Orleans from Florida, gets her job transferred here, starts living in Angela's house and shoulders the responsibility caring for Angela's 10-year-old son Dustin. In the end, cranky Jerusha (she has no more options), a resigned Zib (not liking her life in Florida and not minding a strange homecoming with new responsibilities), and an innocent Dustin ends up forming a new family unit.
Dustin giggles on cue. "Zip works in a grocer store, Mrs Bailey. We even get lamb-and-rice dog food. We don't run out of nothing."
"Anything," Mama says. "We don't run out of anything."
"Hey ease up," I say. Dustin's grammar is his legacy from his mother.
"If I hadn't corrected Wilson all the time, where do you think he'd be right now?" she says.
"Working as an assistant manager in a Winn-Dixie," I say.
"Come on, Dustin, we're going home," Mama says. Dustin looks to me for permission.
"I'll be okay," I tell him. He doesn't move. Waits for something else. "I think we're all going to be living together," I whisper in his ear.
"Well, maybe Letterman'll be good tonight," he says. He trudges off toward the exit with my mother. He doesn't miss a step when he passes the bench and grabs his crayons and paper. He wasn't taking out more than one crayon at a time. In case he had to make a fast getaway.