Dorothy Allison wrote the book on dysfunctional families. It was called "Bastard Out of Carolina." Sort of "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" meets "Tobacco Road." Allison's take on so-called trailer trash has always been to highlight the real people beneath the stereotypes and the new family configurations with the power to heal when the traditional ones have proved poisonous. Sure enough, her men tend to be good-for-nothing boozers and womanizers (and sometimes batterers) and her women feisty survivors, but they're always fully realized characters, cursed with their very own frailties.
In Allison's new novel, "Cavedweller," former singer Delia Byrd forsakes the scene of one screwup -- Los Angeles and its rock-music glitter -- to return to the scene of the original, her Bible Belt hometown of Cayro, Ga. When her rock-star lover is killed in a motorcycle accident, she flees homeward with their love child, 12-year-old Cissy. Determined to put alcoholism behind her and to be reunited with the two daughters she abandoned long ago, she faces a community reluctant to forgive and not just one angry daughter but three.
In a deal to regain custody of Amanda and Dede, Delia agrees to care for her ex-husband, Clint, who's dying of cancer. Once a wife-beater, he's now too weak to lift an arm. Thus is created the most interesting fictional minage since Michael Cunningham's "A Home at the End of the World." Delia, who's sworn off men for the time being, works as a hairdresser and worries that her brood will repeat her foolish mistakes. Cissy and Dede become fast friends. Dede is the teen rebel (a little wild but essentially harmless) and Cissy the wonderstruck observer. Amanda, the oldest, seeks solace in Christian fundamentalism, and right out of high school marries a preacher and is churning out babies for the army of the Lord.
The cavedweller of the book's title is Cissy, who, as she grows into her teens, finds both adventure and comfort in spelunking. The risks of injury and getting lost guarantee adventure; the quiet and womblike engulfment offer comfort. An altogether fitting metaphor for family. The very possibility of love, this book suggests, can scare us to death.
Because Cissy isn't the book's main character -- the whole family takes on this role -- I kept misreading the title as "Cavedwellers," a symptom that this novel simply isn't as taut and as sharply focused as its predecessor. Allison assigns all these characters, and minor ones as well, a bit too much to do. (I haven't mentioned the shootings, the genuinely good man, the interracial friendships or the lesbian couple, have I?) But given the tale's extraordinary vitality and wisdom, that's a small price to pay.