THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING, by Fannie Flagg. Random House, 402 pp., $28.
Most of us spend a lot of time and energy fretting about life. But Elner Shimfizzle, one of the notable residents of Fannie Flagg’s fictional (and delightful) Elmwood Springs, Missouri, has a few things figured out.
“I think most people are confused about life, because if it’s not one thing or the other, it’s two things going on at the same time,” she says in “The Whole Town’s Talking,” Flagg’s latest novel. “Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time.”
Not profound, but she makes sense. Which means the only logical course of action is to love your neighbors and have yourself a good time. Eat two, maybe even three, helpings of Edna Childress’ apple pie. Rescue a bunch of kittens (kittens always make you feel better). Dress up like the Easter bunny if you’ve a mind to. Take in a troublemaker who needs a good home. Give everybody you know a jar of the best fig preserves they will ever taste, even if they happen to be famous robbers on their way into town to ply their trade at your local bank.
“The Whole Town’s Talking” acts as a chatty companion to Flagg’s previous Elmwood Springs novels, which include “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!” “Standing in the Rainbow” and “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven” (in which Elner Shimfizzle, falling out of her much-loved fig tree, figured prominently).
Instead of concentrating on one particular family or story, though, Flagg takes the long view, offering a history starting with the town’s origins (thanks to sturdy Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom, who begot a dairy dynasty when he wrote away for and married a mail-order bride). The story starts with the founding of the town in 1889 and runs to the present, even a little bit beyond. In between, people get married, have kids and get their hair done by poor Tot Whooten, she of the drunken husband, useless children and passion for disco. A few of the youngsters try to climb the water tower. Their elders enjoy the early bird special at the Main Street Café. People learn to tap dance, watch movies and go off to war.
They also die, ending up at Still Meadows Cemetery (established 1889). But what happens to them when they finally get there is a surprise. Like she did in “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven,” the mischievous Flagg envisions a different sort of afterlife, cozy and unexpectedly satisfying.
That’s really all there is by way of story. What drives “The Whole Town’s Talking” isn’t plot but nostalgia and Flagg’s gentle wit. It’s a pleasant, amusing bedtime story for grown-ups, with short chapters that propel you through the decades, almost all of them leaving you with a smile.
Flagg, who’s best known for her novel “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” touches briefly on dark topics on occasion — one of the town’s young men never makes it home from World War II, and a beloved young woman marries a felonious cad. There might even have been a murder or two: alleged peeping Tom Lester Shingle, mulling his sudden demise — because that’s what the dead do at Still Meadows Cemetery — is sure one of four lady bowlers clobbered him over the head with her ball.
But overall, “The Whole Town’s Talking” is warm and inviting. Flagg’s Elmwood Springs novels are comfort reads of the best kind, warm and engaging without flash or fuss.