In this sequel to his acclaimed "urban masterpiece" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), the national bestseller Dead Above Ground, Jervey Tervalon's unforgettable heroine, Lita Du Champ, is at loose ends, trying to hold house and home together. Ten years after she, her husband, their children, and her twin sisters moved to Los Angeles, the past comes back to haunt her. An unwelcome phone call reveals that Lita's estranged father is on his deathbed and that her aunt has seen Lita's beloved mother -- never mind that the woman has been dead for a decade. Overwhelmed by long-suppressed memories, Lita realizes that she must return to New Orleans to come to terms with her history, but as she makes the journey a growing sense of dread takes root in her soul. She's certain there will be no simple return to the life she led in Los Angeles.
This muddled sequel to Dead Above Ground opens when the protagonist of the first book, Lita Du Champ, is summoned back to New Orleans after a decade in Los Angeles when she learns that her father is dying. Tervalon presents a jumbled series of flashbacks, introducing secondary characters at a rapid-fire rate while providing precious little background for readers unfamiliar with Dead Above Ground. The upshot of the flashbacks is that Lita's family is in chaos. Her mother is long dead, killed in a fire set by the man who killed Lita's sister Adele. Lita, married to Winston, a mechanic, takes in her younger twin sisters, Ava and Ana. As the twins grow up in Los Angeles, Ava becomes unmanageable and runs away to Las Vegas to get married at the tender age of 17. Lita's response to this sort of trouble is to grab a broom and lash out with it-some of her encounters with family members verge on the slapstick. Once the novel finally settles in the present, it is disorganized and incomplete, flitting from one subplot to the next. In the mawkish, over-the-top climax, Lita and her twin sisters band together to banish their mother's ghost from her old house, which Lita has inherited. Lita, a black woman who can pass as white but often chooses not to, is an intriguing if cartoonish character, and Tervalon's tone is refreshingly unsentimental, but his unfocused approach leads to a severe case of sequelitis.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Washington Square Press
May 24, 2004
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Excerpt from Lita by Jervey Tervalon
The phone rang at 4:00 A.M. with news that Daddy was on his deathbed and I needed to come home to New Orleans. Confused, I took a minute or two to get my head clear, then I panicked. Suddenly, I was a little girl about to lose her father, sinking below despair, but that despair vanished when I got my wits about me.
It was Daddy she was talking about.
I had detested him all my life. Why should I pretend to care about him on his deathbed? Waste of time and money to go to New Orleans, rushing home to say last words. I had no last words for him, this man who never did a thing for us -- except to beat Mother when he felt like it.
I was surprised that it took me a moment to recognize that voice I hadn't heard in more than ten years. Made me want to laugh, Aunt Dot trying to sound like a sane person.
"Lita, you need to come back. You've been gone too long," she said.
I shook my head.
"No disrespect, Aunt Dot, but I don't think I've been gone long enough."
"Lita, that's all water under the bridge."
"Guess it is," I said, with so little enthusiasm even a lunatic like her should have picked up on it.
"How are the kids?" Aunt Dot asked, as though she cared.
"Just fine. Everybody is about as fine as they can be."
She hummed a bit, as if she wanted to say something, but couldn't bring herself to get to it. I imagined it was a bit of poison that she had been carrying around for the last decade, waiting for that right moment to slip it to me. That's what I expected from a woman who sicced her crazy boys on me, scratched my face bloody the day before my wedding over forty dollars she said I owed her.
"I saw her," Aunt Dot said, like I should know what she's talking about.
"Saw who?" I asked tentatively, regretting the question as soon as I asked it.
"At the house on Gravier. I saw her in the bedroom."
Too tired to play Aunt Dot's guessing game, I wanted to be done with the conversation. I should have hung up -- I had every right to hang up on Aunt Dot -- but I was fool enough to listen, now I was fouled up in her line.
"Mother? What are you saying? You saw Mother?"
"Yeah, I did. Other people saw her too, your sisters, not just me."
"Stop joking. I don't have time for this."
"Lita, it's a sign, a sign for you to come home."
I slammed the phone down so hard it sounded like a gunshot in that sleeping house.
I had a clue of what was going on down there; I had an inheritance coming. Once Daddy's dead we're to sell Mother's house and divide the proceeds. I got Mother's will and I read it, and unlike Aunt Dot, I understand it. If I don't agree to sell, Aunt Dot won't get her cut, and even though I could use the money, I don't want to sell.
Aunt Dot calling with crazy nonsense might have jarred me awake and wasted my time, but I almost welcomed the distraction. The way things have been going in Los Angeles, getting stirred up about New Orleans is almost a relief.
L.A. isn't the promised land I thought it would be when we first arrived, and certainly not now. I don't know what I could have been thinking -- streets paved with gold, platinum toilets -- that kind of nonsense. Los Angeles is just another city, brutal and cruel, but with palm trees and freeways and dreams of a better life.
Ten years ago we arrived and moved into Winston's cousin's house on Second Avenue that we bought from him sight unseen, and the lousy bastard had the lights and heat turned off on us, I guess to save a couple of dollars and get his deposit back a couple of days sooner.
We rolled in after three days of hellish driving across hot miles and miles of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona deserts. I was six months pregnant, trying not to throw up out the window, doing my best to keep the kids from driving me nuts, but I was already nuts from that husband of mine whistling every song he learned in three years of army life.
I have no words to describe how happy I was to get to Los Angeles, even if the sky was brown and the air burned my eyes. I was out of that stupid car after days of being packed in like funky sardines.
That first night we ate ham and cheese po'boys by candlelight. That was nice, but I have good ears and I could hear skittering in the plaster walls of this house that I expected to be some kind of wonderful.
"Your goddamn brother's house has rats!" I whispered to Winston, so I wouldn't wake the children. "You better get rid of them tomorrow or I'm turning around and going back to New Orleans."
He looked at me like I had lost my mind.
"Lita, I don't hear no rats."
"Then you're deaf," I said, and turned over and went to sleep.
Winston missed sounds and words you'd think he'd catch, having damaged one ear in the war; he always managed, though, to hear what you didn't expect him to, specially whispers under my breath about how he was making me crazy enough to kill him.
The next morning the air was crisp, the smog had blown off, and we could see mountains in the distance.