Billy Coffey is a storyteller, one of the best writing today. Even more, he’s a natural storyteller, the words seemingly rolling right on to the page. To read a story by Coffey is to sit in a diner, preferably somewhere in South, and listen while waitresses refill coffee cups and slide a bit of lemon meringue pie across the table in your direction. And the stories do come.
Coffey’s first novel, Snow Day, told the story of a man facing the loss of his job when it snows, giving jobs and loss of jobs a brief respite. It’s a day when he will learn what’s truly important, simply by considering the stories of the people he runs into.
His second novel, Paper Angels, involves a man recovering from an injury in a hospital, and a visitor arrives to help him sort through a box of what looks like utterly worthless things. But each thing has a story, and the man watches his own story unfold as the box is sorted.
And now there’s When Mockingbirds Sing. It’s ambitious. It goes beyond, well beyond, the weaving of interrelated stories of his first two books, to become a unified story, a large story with a large theme. Through the characters in the town of Mattingly, Coffey lays open the questions of what is faith, what is doubt, what is prophecy, and what happens when they collide in the lives or people.
Tom and Ellen Norcross and their daughter Leah have moved to Mattingly, both to seek reduced pressures from Tom’s counseling workload and to repair a marriage that is not doing well. Their daughter Leah is a quiet child with a stutter, and with something else – an imaginary friend she calls the Rainbow Man, who inspires here to paint extraordinary pictures.
Leah says the Rainbow Man has told her to give the first picture to Barney Moore, who cares for his stroke-paralyzed wife Mabel. Barney sees numbers painted on the picture, bets the numbers in the lottery and comes up a winner with $250 million. When he announces what happens at church, life in Mattingly begins to blow apart, and Leah finds herself both sought after and reviled. Her one friend, Allie Granderson, sticks by her, however (and the character of Allie is drawn so well that she threatens to steal the story at times).
Then Leah paints another picture, one no one can figure out. But it is a sign of something that’s coming, something bad, and everyone’s lives will be changed because of it.
While Leah (and Allie) sit at the center of the story, Coffey has drawn a fine supporting cast – the legalistic deacon, the pastor impressed with his own success, a father who rejects faith because of the damage he believes it’s caused in the lives of the people he counsels, a mother who in her loneliness is turning to alcohol, the small-town sheriff. Together they move toward what the Rainbow Man has told Leah will come.
It’s an ambitious novel, and it works, and works well. Coffey has aimed at large themes, and hit them with a practiced eye. These are bedrock themes, especially for people of faith, and Coffey doesn’t duck the hard questions. He’s written When Mockingbirds Sing strong and true, and we tackle the hard questions with him.
Photograph: Northern Mockingbird, courtesy Birder’s Lounge.