Of all the ordeals Sookie Stackhouse, small-town waitress extraordinaire, has suffered over the course of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries series, none quite compares to being conflated with the fairly bad HBO series "True Blood." Yes, Sookie has been tortured by evil fairies, suspected of a half-dozen crimes, had her heart broken and lost people she loved. But she has always kept her dignity, which is more than anyone involved in the creation of "True Blood" can say. Thank god Sookie's Gran didn't live to see the day!
The Southern Vampire Mysteries -- which began in 2001 with "Dead Until Dark," and continued through 13 novels with hard-to-keep-straight titles and a dozen or so short stories and novellas -- is comfort reading of superior quality, made even more endearing by the series' longtime audiobook narrator Johanna Parker. As the series title suggests, these books, while typically shelved in the romance section, are actually whodunits. In each volume some annoying minor character gets killed, and by the end the culprit has been nabbed: serviceable plots, these, but certainly not the source of the series' charm.
I know the SVM books entirely through Parker's wry, companionable narrations, which may explain why, for this reader, the books, told in the first person, are all about Sookie. They're the story of a girl -- you could even say a Southern, working-class version of Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath, only much more likable and with an even weirder circle of friends. Sookie has worked her way through a string of boyfriends and suitors, friends, frenemies, roommates, co-workers, relations and neighbors, but three things have remained constant: her job, her house and her town. That hasn't much changed in "Dead Ever After," the series' concluding novel -- but then again it has, because Sookie has changed. Pop culture may have no better exemplar of T.S. Eliot's dictum, "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
"Dead Ever After" wraps up Sookie's journey in a highly satisfying fashion, all the more to be savored in advance of another season of the dispiriting trash that "True Blood" has become. "True Blood" creator Alan Ball's fatal mistake lies in his leering, metrosexual contempt for his characters and their milieu. In contrast to Ball's flippant gore-and-camp extravaganza, Harris' tender, humorous treatment of rural working-class life in northwestern Louisiana is the superior stereotype-buster.
As a telepath, Sookie has long been exquisitely aware of how the people around her (particularly the upper-middle-class ones) dismiss her: a cute, bosomy blonde with no education to speak of, waiting tables in a roadhouse. Some tiny, cowed part of her once half-agreed with them; Sookie's thwarted longing for college is one of the series' persistent notes. Through the course of the SVM books, she has come to know her own worth. Some of that worth derives from such genre standbys as paranormal talents and a secret lineage, but the ballast of Harris' series is pure character: Sookie's decency, loyalty, intelligence and strength. And, most remarkably, Harris doesn't conflate Sookie's blossoming with a need to repudiate her roots.
Through Parker's narration, I've come to think of Sookie as a cherished younger friend I catch up with once a year or so. Long after the murder-of-the-week and the miscellaneous vampire, werewolf and fairy intrigues ceased to interest me much, I went on caring about Sookie; I was happier to read about her cleaning out her attic or shopping for baby shower gifts or baking a pie or chatting with the customers at Merlotte's Bar and Grill than I was to follow the latest crisis among the "supes." She did have that domineering older boyfriend who never seemed quite right for her (even if so many women thought he was to die for), but I had a feeling she'd figure it all out in good time. Something in the way Parker reads Sookie's best lines assured me of her fundamental levelheadedness.
"Dead Ever After" won't make much sense to newcomers, so consider this an endorsement of the whole series instead. The facile take on Harris' wildly popular series is that the vampires going public represent gays coming out of the closet: people who reveal themselves to be something other than what you'd always assumed. But the real revelation is Sookie, who never pretended to be anything other than herself. It's just taken the world a while to appreciate what's truly there.
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