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© Bella Stander


T.R. Pearson
Author of Polar

April/May 2002

by Bella Stander

OK, so there's this "trash" guy Clayton. You know the type: lives alone in a filthy, crumbling old house way out of town, doesn't bathe, eats only junk food, watches cable porn 24-7 by way of a gargantuan satellite dish, channels a long-dead Antarctic explorer and predicts the future in random, cryptic bursts. Wait a minute…Where did those last two items come from?

T.R. Pearson, in whose eighth novel, Polar (Viking), Clayton plays a central role, doesn't have an answer. "I have no idea what to say about the book; can't explain it, can't account for it," he admits. In a more helpful vein, Pearson notes that for more than a decade he's been reading the evermore voluminous literature of the Antarctic. What struck him about the race to the South Pole, he says, "was how pointless it was. Everyone in Scott's party knew they were going to die. The Antarctic was such a blank backdrop, with all the personalities played out against it. Somehow it caught my imagination."

The other key character in Polar is Ray Tatum, itinerant sheriff's deputy in a little unnamed burg somewhere in the hills west of Charlottesville, Va. Ray was also a protagonist in Blue Ridge, which interweaves two "standard mysteries that comment on each other." And he was the unnamed narrator of the darkly comic and more literary Cry Me a River, published in 1993, which Pearson describes as a "police procedural turned inside out." He explains, "My goal was to take Ray through three novels that aren't interrelated, so that anyone could come at these books cold. But if you have read any of the others, I would hope that it would be a slightly richer experience."

Polar's narrator is anonymous; all one knows is that he's a man with intimate and hilariously uncharitable knowledge about his neighbors. "This person is a native of this little town, who feels that his opinion is representative of everyone else's," says Pearson. "And in fact that certainly isn't the case; I bet half of what he says isn't true at all. He reads it in the paper, hears other people tell him one thing or another, makes it up. In my mind he's the personification of 24-hour news channel technology."

Pearson, who for the past five years has divided his time between western Albemarle and Brooklyn, has plenty of experience with Southern small-town types. A native of Winston-Salem, he went to N.C. State "to study economics or something, and ended up in the English department. I thought I'd be a teacher, went to Penn State for a quarter and then dropped out." He eventually earned a B.A. and an M.A. in English, then painted houses in Raleigh while he wrote his first novel, A Short History of a Small Place, published in 1985.

By 1993 Pearson had come out with five more novels, as well as married his agent (he's since "been kicked" to another), but for the next seven years he didn't publish any books. During a teaching stint at the University of Mississippi he was so bored that he went to the movies a lot. "I thought, They made a horrible mistake; they can't be this bad on purpose," he recalls. Figuring he could do better himself, Pearson bought some how-to manuals and wrote a couple of screenplays-"one set in New York and one in Virginia, just to showcase my dazzling versatility." Later he worked on some scripts (which weren't used) with a certain bestselling novelist who resides near Charlottesville.

Pearson's scathingly funny and indiscrete comments about that writer and the movie business cannot, alas, be repeated here. However, in Polar he takes some wicked jabs at celebrities, the worship of victimhood and the mass media. "What strikes me about how cable and satellite TV works," Pearson observes, "is how much misinformation they put out; how often they are wrong and how rarely they retract anything. If you watch CNN in the morning, it could be contradicted on Fox an hour later. And if you go on the Internet you can get a completely different piece of false information." Better to read true fiction; Polar is a good place to start.

© 2002 Bella Stander

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