Don’t let the lithe narrative of Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut novel “Whiskey & Ribbons” fool you. The Louisville native’s first full-length fiction is packed with thick, graceful notes of what it means to live.
“Whiskey & Ribbons” is the story of Evangeline, a widow and one-time ballet dancer, and her relationship with step-brothers Eamon and Dalton. Cross-Smith, whose collection of short fiction “Every Kiss A War” was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award (2014), creates layers of duality throughout the story. This artful rendering of human relationships gives what some consider a meditation on romance a fuller significance.
This duality leads the reader on from the beginning, where Evi tells the story of how her husband, Eamon, “was shot and killed in the line of duty while I was sleeping. I was nine months pregnant with our son, Noah.” Almost as immediate is Eamon’s brother, Dalton, who Evi notes has now moved in to care for her and the newborn child.
Dalton and Eamon were so close as younger men that others often assumed they were lovers. The two made a pact to care for each other’s family if one of them should die. Dalton, who was adopted by Eamon’s parents after his mother commits suicide, is eager to fulfill his oath. But something more powerful motivates him.
The story moves across a present space where Dalton and Evi are snowed in by a Kentucky blizzard. The two try to come to terms with their grief. Is Evi’s longing for her dead husband expressing itself in attraction for his brother? Does Dalton’s search for a father drive him to stand in for Eamon, or is he simply fulfilling a promise? It’s in these moments that the careful reader finds the real tension driving “Whiskey & Ribbons”.
Cross-Smith is quite skilled at scene execution. It’s apparent that she’s honed her craft in short stories, and one brisk sentence after the other carries the reader along. One can imagine her constructing a novel of such heavy human emotion instinctively with light sentences in order not to overburden the reader. In this fashion, the poetic flourishes stand out, as do the colors and textures experienced by her characters.
How to hear a story
Music plays a significant role in “Whiskey & Ribbons” as well. Dalton is a part-time jazz pianist and sprinkles flirtatious or comforting passages with Evi with just the right amount of pop culture references, which increases the reader’s experience. Cross-Smith drops lyrical prose with impeccable timing, like a horn player rounding out a phrase before making the turn.
There’s no shortage of examples of Cross-Smith’s skill with placing images in the reader’s head, but one stood out to me while reading the novel this past weekend. Evi’s talking about her feelings of passion for Dalton as they are snowed in together, eating and drinking and trying to resist. As he plays the piano in her home, a rush of energy fills her. “My heart is racing like it’s got its arms up heading for the finish line ribbon.”
I thought about that phrase, that image, for several minutes after reading it.
That’s the power of “Whiskey & Ribbons”, the richness of living expressed in what are otherwise just set pieces at a restaurant or a kitchen counter.
Cross-Smith built this novel with expert placement of opposites. The death of a father and the birth of a son. Dalton’s fatherless childhood and his confused desire to step into another man’s shoes. The chaos of his own mother’s artistic lifestyle and the predictability of his adopted home with Eamon. All of this tension plays itself out as Dalton and Evi try to understand if their desire for each other is real or part of the unique way we all process universal grief.
Many thanks to Cross-Smith for letting us review her work and being gracious enough to answer a few questions in our author Q&A, which you can read here. She will participate in the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival in May and lead sessions at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop in July.