Matthew J. White
Helvellyn Press, April 4, 2023
Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-7391031-0-1
A Feral Chorus, the debut novel from former Texan Matthew J. White, offers readers a clever and entertaining mixture of comedy, mystery, social commentary, romance, and road-trip misadventures across America’s South.
Born in England, the author grew up in Southeast Texas, and was a lawyer in Houston before returning to the United Kingdom in 2017.
In A Feral Chorus, White’s central character, Guy Hastings, realizes his life is a mess. He’s about to turn 30, and he still hasn’t finished law school. Indeed, he’s no longer even enrolled. He’s selling cars at a Houston dealership and just drifting along, commission to commission, until he’s blindsided by two events. First, his favorite uncle, Harry Fentress, dies suddenly at his desk, leaving no one to manage his failing law firm. And Guy’s wife Whitney declares that she’s fed up with Guy’s faded ambitions and lack of concern for upward mobility. Demanding a separation, she throws him out of their house.
White uses deft combinations of small details, realistic dialogue, and internal monologue to add depth to his wide-ranging tale. And his previous connections to Texas still shine. One example: when Whitney criticizes Guy’s lack of ambition by telling him, “You’re like some college kid, whiling your way down the Guadalupe in an inner tube,” Guy’s response is mostly internal. “I turned over and attempted to go to sleep. As I lay there on the expensive memory-foam mattress, ensconced in the high-thread-count sheets, I tried to take my mind off Harry’s untimely passing by considering the flow of the esteemed rivers of the Hill Country. I was rusty on Central Texas’s riparian geography, so when I was done with the Guadalupe, my mind went blank.”
Guy wants desperately to win back Whitney’s affection. But he also knows his beloved Aunt Imogen, Harry’s widow, can’t run the once thriving and now fading law firm. So he attempts a madcap scheme: Work at the law practice by day and sell vehicles during the car dealership’s night shift. Soon, however, Guy is distracted by a chance to make $100,000 quickly if he can collect a large, overdue legal settlement payment owed to his late uncle’s firm. With that money, Guy is sure he can show some “upward mobility” to Whitney and entice her to take him back. All he has to do, he thinks, is go to Tampa, and collect the money from the client who embezzled it.
Life seldom flows that smoothly, of course. Guy keeps encountering people and awkward happenings that reveal the thin veneer between “domesticated” human behavior and the wildness within us that can bubble up and burst to the surface. The author uses these quirky detours as opportunities for Guy to react to people and places in several parts of Texas and the American South. Often, the asides are funny, yet some readers could argue that cutting a few of them would enable the story to advance faster in a book that spans more than 300 pages.
In this first book, White also demonstrates a knack for entertaining descriptions. For example, summing up a touristy Florida seafood restaurant, he writes: “It looked to be the sort of place that served frozen drinks in hollowed-out pineapples, then had to find a use for all of the pineapple innards, so pretty much everything on the menu came with pineapple.”
A Feral Chorus seems almost like two books in one, with Tampa marking the dividing line between the final collapse of Guy’s domesticated life in Texas and his impromptu escape into the wilds of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana driving a dilapidated truck for a hapless British winemaker who’s attempting to launch his brand in all the wrong places.
Some of the scenes soar a bit over the top. But Matthew J. White shows consistently that he’s an entertaining storyteller with a sharp eye for Texas quirks and atmosphere, as well as recent social, religious, and political tensions in America’s Deep South.
And, even though he once again calls England home, he probably could still float lazily down the Guadalupe River with the best of us. He’s a writer to watch.
Matthew J. White was born in England and lived there until he was rather abruptly transported to Southeast Texas at the age of eleven. After a childhood rife with cultural confusions and painful sunburns, he moved to Houston, where he practiced law until moving back to the UK in 2017. He likes to race cars and drink wine but generally not at the same time. A Feral Chorus is his first novel.