If Silver Alert proves to be Lee Smith’s 15th and final novel, she is going out with a bang.
Through high-velocity prose filled with humor and sweet compassion that does not flinch from cruelty, Smith focuses on two improbable friends―an ailing octogenarian and a young woman with a frightening past―who are both trying to gain some measure of control over their lives.
Herbert Atlas is a wealthy 83-year-old with advanced prostate cancer living in Key West with his beloved third wife, Susan, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a challenge for Herb to care for Susan until a 23-year-old aesthetician from the North Carolina mountains who says her name is Renee arrives to give his wife a pedicure. As she polishes Susan’s feet, Renee soothes her soul through her sweet nature and beautiful singing voice. But just when Herb thinks he’s found a solution to his problem, his family stages an intervention, saying it is well past time he and Susan moved into assisted living.
As Herb wrestles with their demand, Smith fills us in Renee’s troubled past―her real name is Dee Dee, and she was pimped out to a series of human traffickers after her parents died when she was 13. Recalling the similarly situated narrator of Lydia Millet’s novel My Happy Life, Smith gives Dee Dee a remarkably light and resilient voice filled with an optimism far stronger than her pain. Dee Dee is a victim―did I mention the rich boy who has impregnated her is now skipping town?―but she chooses, as she puts it, to see herself as the protagonist of her own story.
While life does it best to grind them down, Herb and Dee Dee set out in his Porsche on a road trip. Destination: Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando.
This coupling of young and old reflects a larger theme. As Wiley Cash observes in Walter Magazine:
“Throughout the novel, Smith brings the reader’s attention to this time continuum, including one moment when Dee Dee is watching moonlight move across a deck, thinking, “I am happy I’m so happy I will remember this for the rest of my life.” The book’s narrator steps in at that moment to add, “and she would, too.” If Dee Dee is living in the moment while thinking about the future, Herb is living in the past while dreading what’s ahead. While he attempts to care for Susan, he continually “feels himself slipping back, back, back through time” to his first love, a woman named Roxana who he met when they were children in Buffalo, New York.”
Writing in the Southern Review of Books, Christine McDowell Tucker notes:
“Silver Alert reminds us that at every age, humans are tasked with making difficult life choices. Sometimes we have all the information we need to make the choice—Herb knows on some level that Susan needs a higher level of care and that he must take better care of himself. And sometimes, like Dee Dee, we are young or naive or too trusting, and the choices we make can lead to serious, unintended consequences. Readers are reminded that sometimes the people who show up to help us along the way make our lives richer in ways that we least expect.”
In Silver Alert Smith tackles very difficult material―sexual abuse, drug addiction, betrayal, disability and death―with a remarkable touch. She does not sugar coat misery but finds a way to portray it in a story that is strikingly upbeat. Through Dee Dee, Smith creates a remarkably enlightened character who refuses to dwell on and complain about the past―and lord knows no one would blame her if she did. Instead, Dee Dee is always striving to deal herself a better set of cards. She is not delusional, but empowered and undaunted. If this is, indeed, Smith’s final novel, she is leaving us with some wisdom for the ages.
- Read an excerpt from Silver Alert below
- Read an interview with Lee.
- Read Mary E. Miller’s profile of Lee.
- Visit Lee’s official website.
Lee Smith’s Top Ten List
1. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916)
2. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920–22)
3. The Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow (1932)
4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)
5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
6. The stories of Eudora Welty (1909–2001)
7. The stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64)
8. River of Earth by James Still (1940)
9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
10. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
An Excerpt from Silver Alert by Lee Smith
The doorbell rings promptly at 10 a.m. (exactly when Pat said), sending its jazzy little Hawaiian tune throughout the stately rooms of their big pink tropical house—hell, mansion is more like it—in Key West: 108 Washington Street, a primo address only one block from the classy Casa Marina Hotel and also Louie’s Backyard restaurant, also classy, also pink. Too much pink in this goddamn town for a man, a real man anyway, a man like Herb used to be, yeah right, ha. Shit. Their house would go for a coupla mil right now. The song sounds again through the scented air of the solarium, big flowers blooming everyplace in here, Susan used to love them so, bless her soul and damn it all to hell.
“We are going to a hukilau ...” Herbert Atlas sings along as he pads across the marble floor in his lime-green crocs toward the carved mahogany front door, his red-and-black plaid pajama pants held up by his considerable gut. The blue-flowered Hawaiian shirt is open three buttons down, exposing curly white chest hair. But shit. He’s gotta pee again already, he’s only been up since 8:30 and he’s peed, what? Five or six times. Old age is all about urine, who knew? Who woulda thunk it?, as his first wife Roxana used to say, back in the day, that sainted woman, bless her soul, too.
Herb crosses the black-and-white vestibule to throw the deadbolt and turn the large brass knob.
The girl stands before him in a patch of sunlight that falls through thick palm fronds to surround her like a spotlight. She’s smiling already. 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. They look brand new. She wears jeans and some kind of a pink tunic, professional looking.
“Atlas residence? Pedicure?” Her voice is low, nice.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m the husband, Herbert Atlas, call me Herb.”
“But I was contacted by a Miss Pat DeVine . . .” The girl twitches her nose as she pulls a little notebook out of her big sparkly purse and looks at it.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right, that’s my wife’s daughter’s partner, if you can follow that, but what the hell, this is Key West, isn’t it? You got all kinda situations down here, am I right?”
The girl grins at him, one snaggletooth, which is adorable.
“So this pedicure is for my wife Susan, she’s the one getting this pedicure, if you can get her to sit still long enough to get it. She’s got some kind of toe problem going on, Jesus, who knows? I can’t take her back to the salon where she used to go, over on Simonton, they said she caused a disturbance over there, this classy lady. Well, you’ll see. Oh, you’ll see. So now her daughter, that’s Maribeth, she’s the hippie one, and Maribeth’s partner, that’s Pat that called you, she’s the bossy one, they’ve come down here for a couple months to see how Susan’s doing, to help me take care of her, that’s a crock. 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.”
The girl smiles steadily at Herb, her head cocked like a bird, listening. She acts like she’s got all the time in the world.
“Sorry.” Herb hitches up his pajama pants. “Well, you can give it a try.” Then he remembers to ask: “Your name, honey?”
“Renee Martin.” She holds out her pretty manicured hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Herb is beyond charmed. “Likewise.” He gives her hand a quick squeeze. “Come on then. What the hell.” He steps back and holds the door open, only then noticing the big, boxy bag she lifts up to carry along with the sparkly purse, and something else that looks like a tool kit. “Hey, can I help you with some of that?” he asks, too late.
“Oh no,” Renee says, and clearly means it, almost prancing through the door.
Youth, he’s thinking. Ah, youth.
She follows him through the solarium and down the hall to the left, through the gazebo garden and into the guest wing, which is now devoted to Susan, to Susan’s care, goddamnit, and Herb doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about it, he thinks he’s doing a goddamn good job of it, and it’s going fine. It’s all going fine.
Under the circumstances.
From Silver Alert by Lee Smith. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2023 by Lee Smith.