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Omnivorous Reader

The Great Escape

Silver Alert is a bewitching joyride

By Anne Blythe

Lee Smith, a treasure of the North Carolina literary world, takes you on an unusual journey in her newest novel, Silver Alert. She’s predictably funny in her typically marvelous, unpredictable way. Her characters are beguilingly quirky. Yet amid all the humor and occasional madness in this tale about an octogenarian’s “one last joyride,” Smith plunges her readers into the depths of tough topics such as aging, sex trafficking, emotional abuse, poverty and wealth.

There are two protagonists. One is Herb Atlas, a curmudgeonly but ever so lovable retiree on his third marriage who we meet in his lovely — and very pink — Key West home. In his golden years now, Herb is perpetually mining for the gold he really didn’t know he had in his youth as he does his best to care for his once lively, artistic, adventurous and beautiful wife, Susan. He longs for the fancy and fast cars of his earlier years, alluring courtships and an escape from the dementia that has relegated Susan to a rattan chair by the bay window, where she remains lost in her own world.

The other central character, Dee Dee, or Renee, or whatever name the victimized but optimistic woman from Appalachia decides to use, is a young pedicurist fleeing hard-knock days. She is whip-smart, resourceful and endearing. Her parents died when she was a child. She bounced from household-to-household, man-to-man, lives in a bread-shaped trailer with a pink roof and fends for herself in a world in which those she encountered rarely had her best interest at heart.

Dee Dee is running from her past with hopes of a brighter future. Herb wants little to do with his future and yearns for the past. Their paths converge in Key West, a place with celebrated sunsets and a seize-the-day vibe.

Key West is a character in the novel, too. Smith takes her readers down Duval Street and its offshoots, into shops, cafes, Laundromats, and the nooks and crannies where people come to remake themselves, start anew or sometimes disappear.

Herb is in his home at 108 Washington Street, “a primo address,” as Smith describes it, wearing red-and-black plaid pajama pants, lime green crocs and a Hawaiian shirt covering his considerable gut, when he opens the door, and his life, to Dee Dee.

Using Renee, instead of her real name, Dee Dee has come to give Susan a pedicure. “She looks like a kid, with those wide brown eyes beneath the blond bangs, her high, shiny ponytail swinging as she steps forward in her white, white tennis shoes,” Herb thinks to himself. He gives her an earful as he walks her back to his wife’s quarters. Susan’s daughter, Maribeth, “the hippy one,” as Herb calls her, and her partner Pat DeVine, “the bossy one,” who arranged the appointment, have come down to help care for his wife.

Herb is unenthusiastic. “I never asked them, you understand. I don’t need them, this is a classy operation. But this Pat, you can’t tell her no, you can’t tell her nothing.”

Dee Dee, dressed in jeans, a pink tunic and carrying a big bag of nail polishes, clippers and salon tools, is not just a pedicurist, it turns out. She has a knack for dealing with Susan. The “crazy whisperer,” as Herb dubs her, can make his Susan laugh, smile and even seem happy with colorful markers, a tablet and easel from the Walmart children’s section. For hours at a time, Susan sits in the garden in front of her easel, using only one color on each sheet of paper, drawing “crazy art.”

The makeshift art corner delights Herb as he tries to ignore the signs of aging thrust at him — the living wills, the health care power of attorney, confounding medical forms and that humiliating clock he had to draw for the nurse, showing the hands set at 7:15, to assess his mental acuity. Then there’s his constant urge to pee — “Old age is all about urine, who knew?” Smith writes.

Smith takes on some of the difficult topics of aging as she introduces her readers to the cast of adult children in Susan and Herb’s world. She shows the push and pull, and the sometimes painful juxtaposition, as children take on the difficult roles of being parents for their parents.

Smith craftily explores the wealth dichotomy so prominent in Key West as readers follow Dee Dee, whose hardscrabble beginnings have left her with few nickels to scrape together. Her travels take her from the trailer park where drug trafficking sometimes pays the rent to the affluence of the Atlas house and the “tree house,” where she has a romance with a well-to-do graduate student taking a break from his scripted life to live like a Bohemian and write poetry.

Herb and Dee Dee go about their business for much of the first half of the book at a pace that — like a child chomping at the bit to grow up — is not always as swift as desired.

Then Herb and Susan’s family stages an intervention and they can see their dreams unraveling. As the adult children talk about moving Herb into an assisted living facility in Del Ray with Susan, he fishes keys to his Porsche from his secret hiding place in a shoe and sets off with Dee Dee on a madcap adventure.

Herb’s last joyride is a joy for readers, as well. Even though there are cringing moments as the pair starts out along the streets of Key West, then on the highways north, eventually headed to Disney World, it’s difficult not to cheer them on.

Silver Alert will make you squirm over the wistfulness of aging, but it will leave you with a big smile from getting to know characters who worm their way into your heart.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.