Woodrow’s Trumpet was one of those novels that got some attention at the time – it was published in hardcover by Norton in 1989 – but which has kind of disappeared since. Its author Tim McLaurin, who passed away in 2002, was one of those mid-list Southern writers whose eclectic array of life experiences created a body of work that defies typical notions of Southern-ness. And that’s exactly what drew me to this book: descriptions calling it a work of the New South.
Set in a small farming community outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, the novel centers on the overly large and deceptively simpleminded Vietnam veteran Woodrow Bunce, whose landed-gentry family expects to keep up both wealth and appearances. Rounding out the main players are Ellis, an angry, orphaned teenager who Woodrow employs part-time, and Nadean, a black woman who returns to town after going astray in Washington DC and becoming a heroin junkie. The town goes nuts when Woodrow has Nadean shacking up with him, then the suburbanites who’ve infested a former plot of Bunce farmland nearby go even more nuts when Woodrow builds her a beachy paradise on their front lawn. The antagonist is Mary, a “Karen” from up North whose overzealous liberalism and amateurish penchant for public policy put her at odds with Woodrow and Nadean, as she tries to sure up the bedroom-community appeal of her very new homeplace. Sprinkled in are the pot-growing Lupo family, who oppose any new development, and the old-money Bunces, who are alternately embarrassed by Woodrow and plagued with troubles of their own. The novel’s story pits small-town ideals against modern progress, bringing together a variety of Southern types.
Woodrow’s Trumpet is not a great novel, but it is quite good. McLaurin weaves back and forth among the characters and their backstories, jumping among time periods and revealing just enough to maintain a little mystery. The narrative is built on people who are interesting and quirky but not so odd as to turn the novel into a cheap imitation of A Confederacy of Dunces. Appearing to be out-of-print at the point, used copies are available for folks who’d like to dive into a Gen-X era Southern novel that’s funny in spots but serious in general, not too deep but definitely not shallow either.