Mark Dunn


"Welcome to Higby"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 30, 2002)

"Because these last few hours had changed him forever. In the company of a fellow traveler Stewie had found God--- a different God--- one he had never known existed. A God removed from clumsy human projections and self-serving interpretations. A God unfathomable beyond the one simple truth acknowledged by all the religions of the world: God equals love. A generous love. A love without specifications."

Even though this novel is not at all like it, while reading it I couldn't help but think that it was akin to a modern day A Midsummer Night's Dream. There really aren't any plot similarities, but like the play, there are a lot of mix-ups, misdirected love attempts, general yearnings that may or may not amount to love at first sight --- and very little sleep during the three days that the events take place. Through all the pell-mell, a general theme emerges that good, honest love reigns above all. Yes, welcome to Higby, Mississippi and a story that will make you smile and feel good.

It begins Labor Day morning 1993. Reverend Cullen's adolescent son Clint has just fallen fifty-five feet from an old water tower into Johnny and Sheila Billows' aboveground swimming pool. No one really knows for sure why Clint climbs the tower, but the boy's mother did die two years earlier, which must mean something. Fortunately, outside of the bruising caused by smacking the water with such force, he doesn't appear to be terribly harmed; but he's sent to the hospital just to be sure. Meanwhile, Reverend Cullen (of the Bible Methodist church) is returning from a two-week church camp meeting, when the bus carrying him and the kids home -- intending to be on time for the town's labor day picnic --- breaks down in front of the Far East House of Massage just a few miles outside of Higby. What is unsettling to Reverend Cullen is that the red-headed proprietress, Desiree Parker, who is suspected of some very unchristian-like activity, makes him think of his dead wife.

Carmen Valentine is preparing the same potato salad she makes for every municipally sponsored picnic (someone mistook her potato salad for another's and told her it was the best so she keeps making it even though it is never eaten) and telling herself that she'll have a good time at the Labor Day picnic, even if Tie Gibbons doesn't notice her. Tie's a new guy in town having moved to Higby in May to work at the Pomeroy Lumber Company. Carmen noticed him because he attends church with her friend Stewie Kipp. If Carmen meets Tie at the picnic it will save her all kinds of trouble since right now she's working on a plan to sit one pew further back every Sunday until she's sitting right in front of Stewie and Tie. Little does Carmen know that, while her guardian angel, Arnetta, is off on a skiing vacation, she will have two accidents -- one that prevents her from meeting Tie Gibbons, and then another that cancels out the need for that plan entirely.

Stewie Kipp and Marci Luck have been going out for three years and are loosely engaged to be married. Only, ever since Stewie became born again and a member of the Calvary United Christian church nine months earlier, Marci is having her doubts about the whole relationship. She's wondering if someone a little less impertinent about his religion and relation to God (and thus more fun) might not be a better match; someone maybe like Stewie's good looking roommate Tie Gibbons. Meanwhile, Stewie does a late-night stop at the Mammoth Mart and discovers that Marci just might be right about their relationship, as he makes contact with a beautiful checkout girl.

There are more than just potential love interests that are bumping and colliding on this Labor Day. Bowmar and Nancy Leigh live next door to Carmen. Bowmar is an ex-convict and is the first person that Police officer Ray Reese questions whenever anything happens in Higby. So naturally, when Nancy Leigh's sister Talitha goes missing and manages to get a note back to Nancy Leigh saying she's been abducted by a vegan religious cult, Bowmar mistakenly becomes the prime suspect, at least in Ray's eyes. Tula Gilmurray, another neighbor, took in her oldest brother Hank when he retired from the road. She soon discovered that her beloved brother's mind is slipping, which breaks her heart. Late that night, when Hank still hasn't returned from the picnic, she hopes that her best friend's son Euless can look for Hank so that she doesn't have to call the police and risk having Hank taken away from her. But Euless is also missing. Overtired from working two jobs to pay back the IRS and the payments on his mobile home, his boss sends him home to get a good night's sleep - but Euless gets talked into going over to his friend Stewie's home for a game of Tripoley, thus his whereabouts are unbeknown to his mother.

The structure of this novel is half the fun of reading it. There are 78 chapters; each is short and preceded by a quick, out-of-context Bible quote, which make you chuckle when you re-read them at the end of each brief chapter. From chapter to chapter, Dunn often uses a connecting technique in which the words or actions or events that end one "scene" (or chapter), are used again to start up the next one. For example, at the end of Chapter 6, Talitha is walking by the Hoffbrau contemplating going in to see if she can meet any non-trucker types for a change. Chapter 7 starts with Carmen slowing down her walk while passing the Hoffbrau to let a "slender, rumpled young woman with rebellious hair vacate the crosswalk." In this way, we are observers to the whole town, seeing what a character we just met looks or seems to another. Although, he doesn't segue every new chapter in this way, he does it often enough to set a rhythm of sorts that shows the connection between everyone in town, even those that don't know each other and to seemingly unrelated events.

Like his first novel, Ella Minnow Pea, which is a wonderful political allegory, this one also offers a message. This time it is about finding God and love, especially outside of organized religion; that the only way to truly find God is to discover love. Some might call this a fairy tale, but even if it is, I fancy the story and the Higby messengers. Or let me steal one of misappropriated Bible quotes: "Read this, I pray thee." Isaiah 29:11

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

Read an excerpt from Welcome to Higby in USA Today

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"Ella Minnow Pea"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark OCT 19, 2001)

"lip-o-gram, n. a written work composed of words selected so as to avoid the use of one or more letters of the alphabet."

Ella Minnow Pea lives on the island of Nollop, a country situated 21 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. The quasi-communal society was established in 1840 by a group of dispossessed Southerners, who thirty years later declared independence from the United States. Over the years, the country's leadership endeavored to uplift its citizens through the devotion to liberal arts education, elevating language to a national art form and relegating technology to the status of "avoidable nuisance." Unlike the "vocabu-lazy" Americans across the sound, the Nollopians are a nation of letter writers. As such, this epistolary tale has Ella and her fellow Nollopians communicating the "lipogrammatic" events in letters and notes.

The story opens with a letter from Ella to her country cousin Tassie, catching her up on the news that one of the tiles from the top of the Nevin Nollop cenotaph, located in the center of town, has fallen off. It's the "Z" in Nollop's famous pangram The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. To the surprise of many in town who took the event as happenstance, Nollop's Council has called an emergency meeting to glean the meaning of this "sudden and unexpected detachation."

Despite the logical explanation that the tile simply fell because the fixant holding it gave out after 100 years, the Most Senior Council Member Willingham and his four fellow counciliteurs have decided that Mr. Nollop is communicating from the grave that the good people of Nollop should go without the twenty-sixth letter and only use the remaining 25. So at the midnight cusp of August 7/8 onward, no one is to speak or write any word containing the letter "Z" or to be in possession of any written communication containing the letter. After three violations, the citizen is to be expelled from the island nation of Nollop and if they refuse to leave, it could result in death.

For Ella, "Z" doesn't seem like that much of a sacrifice as it is only a "marginally important letter," although she can see the inconvenience, and thus approaches this new challenge with "cautious initial fealty." Her cousin Tassie is a more indignant, writing that she prefers the right to choose whether or not to use the letter "Z" and is not so keen on the Council eradicating this basic right. She feels the theft of the letter represents something quite large and ominous. And she's right, for the first thing that must go is the library and all books since they likely contain the banned letter. Furthermore, the documented complex legal procedures for recalling Council members (who are appointed for life) will also be removed from the public, making redress impossible. Tassie's also worried about her mother who's a school teacher and thus at higher risk of incurring a violation.

By August 11th, sixty men, women and children have been charged with a first offense, all for speaking the banned words and having been overheard in lanes, schoolyards and church pews. "Neighbor turning in neighbor, perpetuating old grudges and grievances with this new weapon..." One of the violators has even taken to taping his mouth shut. The Island Tribune publisher is on the verge of shutting down the publication, but as a precaution in the interim has asked all employees to tape down the offensive key on their typewriter. Communication is crippled, fear is growing, and then another letter tile falls from the cenotaph. And another...Ella Minnow Pea is a very original and clever novel and hugely entertaining. I couldn't help but laugh out loud at the progressing events and the ensuing language obstacles. As letters of the alphabet are dropped in this "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable," it gets harder and harder to speak and write. (And the author gets more and more clever.) It's also more dangerous for its citizens to go about their normal lives. Many of them are forced off the island resulting in the Nollop High Council confiscating their property. Ella's one hope is an underground resistance effort that is trying to write a new, shorter pangram in an effort to make the High Council see that the veneration they hold for Nollop is misdirected, and to do so before they run out of the alphabet.

Through artful use of language and keen wit, Dunn writes the perfect political allegory, with hidden themes on censorship, authority and the precious yet precarious nature of civil rights. The message aside, this novel is great fun for wordsmiths and linguists. Ella Minnow Pea has enduring significance and is destined to become a classic.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 127 reviews


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About the Author:

Mark DunnMark Dunn is the author of more than twenty-five full length plays. ""Belles" and "Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain" have together received over 150 productions throughout the world. He has been the recipient of several national awards, including the 1997 Nesburn Prize as part of the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild/Julie Harris Playwriting Award competition for his play "Armistice Day." He is playwright-in-residence with the New Jersey Repertory Company and the Community Theatre League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Originally from Memphis, he now lives in Alburquerque, New Mexico.

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