A History of Saints (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, 2021), the debut novel by Julyan Davis, is a modern comedy of manners set during the Great Recession in the eccentric environs of Asheville, North Carolina (blundering “toward a theme park version of itself”). Funny and surprising, the novel brings together a truly bizarre cast of characters – including two feral chihuahuas – and explores, as the subtitle declares, “dog handling, courtly love, gardening and cooking, sexual fluidity, belly dancing, poetry, loss, and addiction.” That list barely scrapes the surface of the explorations that also include a missing chifforobe, a stolen shopping cart, a samurai sword, and “misguided sugar babies.”
The first sentence sets the antic pace: “At the next light Frank struck an individual dressed as a mattress.” Frank is Frank Reed, around whom the book mostly revolves. In an effort to save his grand old home, “Carolina Court,” Frank Reed rents out rooms and assembles a mismatched and colorful group of tenants. The mattress turns out to be one of those tenants, Angus Saxe-Pardee (sometimes known as “Angus Sex Party”), an erstwhile Scotsman.
Angus, in an effort to be of service – or to be in charge, takes it upon himself to run a classified ad to try to rent out Frank’s remaining space. “LIVE GONE WITH THE WIND FOR ONLY $400 A MONTH” reads part of the ad. Eventually the all-male household is joined by two women – Andromeda, a young woman seeking refuge from an affair that has ended badly, and Lida, an enigmatic traveling nurse. The complications and hilarity that ensue are full of surprises and laugh-out-loud banter.
A History of Saints is Davis’s first novel, but his writing is skilled and assured. A native of England, known primarily as a painter of the American South, his art frequently has a narrative flair, especially his touring large-scale painting installation based on Appalachian murder ballads and his “Demopolis” paintings inspired by an Alabama colony of French settlers. That French “Vine and Olive Colony” inspired Davis’s first forays into the South, which he has been painting consistently since the 1980s. The wry humor of A History of Saints is not unprecedented in Davis’s oeuvre; scattered through his work are wistful paintings of period-costumed monkeys and, my favorite, the stages of the moon represented by Moon Pies.
While reading A History of Saints, I was reminded at times of The Untidy Pilgrim, the first novel by Southern renaissance man Eugene Walter, in 1954. Davis’s writing is reminiscent of Walter’s in its devil-may-care whimsy and its unbridled joie de vivre in the complex and occasionally zany weaving of a narrative. Yet, there are poignant moments of insight such as Frank’s realization that it is “the objects we cherish that make a home — the paintings and keepsakes — not the walls around us or the roof above us.” A History of Saints is the work of an artist who is already a skilled storyteller, who has taken those skills to another medium with a novel that provides a welcome respite in challenging times. (https://julyandavis.com)