Southern Belles

Southern Discomfort By Rita Mae Brown Harper & Row: $13.50; 249 pp.

IT'S HARD to believe that the South of William Faulkner. Gone With the Wind and the Ku Klux Klan could produce Rita Mac Brown. In her latest novel. Southern Discomfort--which is filled with her signature wit and warmth--Brown follows several of Motgomery. Alabama's more interesting citizens as they wander through a sexual and social labyrinth as only a candid, radical feminist can.

An eighteen-year-old prostitute who can "suck point off a Chevy" and her partner. Banana Mac Parker, introduce an add assemblage populating Montgomery between 1918 and 1928. These include the aristocratic Banastre family, whose men patronize Blue Rhonda Latrec and Banana Mac. The younger Banastre roam from Yale Law School to incestuous beds, while their stunning mother. Hortensia, appears to epitomize Montgomery's last dispassionate bastion of social standards. But her frigid facade soon crumbles when she meets a gentle young man half her age, and their affair entangles Montgomery, from its upper echelons to the railroad station's streetwalkers. Because young Hercules is Black, questions of bigotry, race and, eventually, love confront these characters.

Here Brown weaves humor into the pathos. Southern Discomfort avoids didacticism and sentimentality, the twin pitfalls of any novel discussing unauthorized, romantic love. Brown has no patience with humanity's cruelties, and laughs at her characters' foibles; she is, however, never unsympathetic. At times she treats helpless sinners with art unexpected gentleness that betrays the author's love for our race, despite its flaws.

Amidst love and war, a strong sense of place and solid characterizations support the widely flung, convoluted plot. From Montgomery, one high-born beauty flies to Hollywood to conquer the new film industry, and the book also jumps over periods of several years. But the novel does not appear fragmented, despite disparities of time and place. These people age slowly, and do not change much, while the South continues interminably with its bloodless elegance and a seedy but lively, underbelly.

Brown's omniscient narrator exhibits her preference for Blue Rhonda and her professional colleagues, but eventually allows readers to glimpse some love in the beautiful mansions. Realizing that these diverse classes will all contribute to the future. Brown portrays the next generation's hope as a bright mulatto child. Catherine Despite its span of only a decade. Southern Discomfort stresses awareness of past and future. The present does not exist in a vacuum, memories of a great-aunt's youth are recalled and young Catherine learns of her lineage. Life continues, and we may be a bitchy, bickering family. Brown implies, but we are all related somehow in this mad continuum.

LIKE HER earlier novels, Southern Discomfort is redolent of feminism. Most major characters are women, several of whom exhibit great strength and independence, although none are idealized. This offers acute timeless insights into the limits and opportunities available to women bound by traditional societies, revealing hidden heroism and behind-the-scenes sisterhood. Several of the men are appealing, but Brown does not focus on them. A few become three-dimensional and believable, such as Hercules father, sunk into passive resignation because of a harsh life. Brown avoids flat, stock figures, but her male characters are generally not as fully fleshed as her women: they are their fathers and lovers but not Montgomery's movers and shakers.

But despite her consistent philosophy, a similar setting and a few recurring characters. Southern Discomfort differs greatly in mood from Brown's earlier and very popular Rubyfruit Jungle. That superb novel focuses on one woman, and presents an affectionate, humorous study of growing up gay in the South. Southern Discomfort tackles a broader range of restrictions; these characters must negotiate wealth and race as well as sexuality. Blue Rhonda, Hortensia and Catherine alternate in the role of protagonist, but the book lacks on central character with whom a reader can identify. This results in a more distanced, although no less sensitive book. Perhaps Southern Discomfort has less warmth than Rita Mae Brown's earlier efforts, but it is certainly a fun read.