Boyhood's Universal Themes in Buckhead, Ga.
UNHEARD MELODIES By Warren Leamon Atlanta: Longstreet Press 214 pp., $16.95 `I walked uneasy on my youth's fine lawns And sought for definitions.'
SO opens ``Unheard Melodies,'' a novel of growing up.
It's the story of a boy as he starts to put the pieces together, as he starts to understand - as he starts to hear the melodies.
The story is set in the Buckhead, Ga., of the 1940s and '50s. Buckhead is now a chic neighborhood of Atlanta - posh shops and sleek bistros. But it was once more than just the upwardly mobile place to live.
When this novel takes place, Buckhead is mostly middle-class homes and brick apartment buildings in a quiet community north of the city, with storefronts clustered at the corner of Paces Ferry and Peachtree Roads. Trucks still deliver ice for the icebox, and open streetcars are starting to be replaced by trolleys.
Warren Leamon - now a teacher at the University of Georgia in Athens - grew up in Buckhead during the '40s and '50s before it grew up.
He has written a haunting book. It haunts partly because it is a story of a place that is no longer - and of a man who is no longer the boy he used to be. Another reason is the vivid sense of place it evokes. You practically sweat while reading of dripping-hot Atlanta summer afternoons. And you feel the mildew in the dark, cool basement where ``it was always late November,'' and where the narrator rigs up a musty old blanket to curtain off his own private corner.
The story is firmly anchored in a time and place. It feels tangible, real, solid. But like any good novel that relies on a given locale, it transcends place. This novel works because it is so humanly present, because it keys so uncannily into the deepest thoughts of a young person.
So knowing nothing about Paces Ferry Road or Piedmont Park is no obstacle. The strength of the novel is in its universal themes. There's the moment Leamon is playing basketball on a Catholic church's grounds and meets a young nun. He discovers that the nuns don't run him off the basketball court because he is a Protestant - as he always thought. It is because the sound of the dribbling ball distracts the sisters from their prayers.
When he pedals his bicycle through dark Sunday mornings to deliver newspapers, he realizes for the first time that Buckhead buildings exist independent of him - even when he isn't there. He discovers that the girl he craves being near feels just as lonely and isolated as he does.
There is a Southern feel to this book. Leamon weaves in some particularly Southern notions, such as the fact that women handle family and religion, men take care of themselves and business. He wonders out loud if there is a particularly Southern connection between religious fundamentalism and drinking binges.
I grew up in a different part of the country, yet reading about the author's dawnings of understanding, I was swept back into recognitions from my own youth in the cornfields of the Midwest. Those small moments when suddenly an understanding is crystallized, an insight is clarified and sharpened. Leamon's epiphanies from small childhood experiences led to my own.
The earliest chapters are tedious. The reader has to take on faith that it matters to hear about the chickens in the backyard, and about Aunt Mary from Charlotte, N.C., who arrives for her yearly visit. Uncle Luther, just hasn't been the same since the war. Grandmother is in a dither about an alleged thief who stole one blue velvet shoe, and she thinks the South Pole is the hottest spot on earth. It's a funky introduction to some oddball relatives.
But this offbeat start is crucial to set the scene and the tone for the novel, since we are seeing the world - or what he knows of it - through the eyes of the unnamed boy narrator. If at first it's hard to make sense of or care about the relatives, it's because the boy is bewildered by them. Everything beyond the borders of Buckhead is alien and uncertain to him.
But slowly, he starts to fit the pieces together, much as he fills in the boxes of crossword puzzles with Aunt Mary. He starts to understand - and Leamon is right on target in evoking those thoughts and rhythms.
WHILE the book is clearly nostalgic for an earlier, simpler time, this is not a joyful reminiscence. Sadness lingers. There is disillusionment in the boy's breaking out of the borders of Buckhead to the rest of Atlanta and the countryside - and world - beyond.
Leamon parallels the boy's life with the maturing of the neighborhood he grew up in. This book openly yearns for a classic ``return to innocence,'' even while it never truly understands what innocence is. It is diffused with a nostalgia for what used to be. Yet, neither the boy-man nor Buckhead could or would ever return to what it used to be, to an earlier, narrower world. So when the author writes of a new subdivision being ``a part of the rampant growth that destroyed my world,'' he knows darn well that world was gone anyway.