Lightning Bug  (1970), by Donald Harington 

Lightning Bug is the first of the thirteen Stay More (Arkansas) novels. Harington, from Little Rock, used Drakes Creek, deep in the hills east of Fayetteville, as his model. He spent his summers there as a child and fell in love with the place, his Yoknapatawpha County.

Boil it down to its essential elements, Lightning Bug is an outré love story told with gentle whimsy, using, in part, the point of a view of a precocious boy-child named Dawny. Dawny has many adventures leading to a time when he’s lost in the woods, maybe forever. Even though he’s only five, he lusts after the lightning bug, Latha Bourne, an evanescent, randy creature who is Stay More’s storekeeper and postmaster.

Lightning Bug is Latha’s novel, and Harington liked her so much he brought her back in several of the Stay More novels. In other words, her story is incomplete here, and Lightning Bug never really ends.

Latha has a lost love, Every Dill, who long ago rescued Latha from the insane asylum (she wasn’t mad; vengeful relatives committed her over their disapproval of her wild sex life, and because they wanted to keep her daughter). Harington relates Every’s rescue like a fast-paced thriller. In terms of technique, there doesn’t seem to be anything Harington can’t do, or won’t.

Every Dill holds Latha captive, rapes her, and then disappears. He returns many years later as a repentant, rueful evangelist, and the strange, tragicomic love affair resumes. We also learn quite a bit more about Every and Latha’s daughter, Sonora, and myriad minor characters.

That’s the story, more or less. Really, because Harington doesn’t like endings (the novel ends where it began, with a screen door squawking shut) and wants the reader to be completely immersed in the experience he offers, the thirteen novels could be said to be one long, episodic novel without beginning or end.

This first one is joyous–a warm summer evening in a lost time. It’s bawdy, not so far from Chaucer. It’s also learned. The characters are hillbillies, yet universal. Here’s some dialogue from a scene in which a candy salesman comes calling on Latha one hot day.

She says: “I will take a box of Baby Ruths, a box of Butterfingers, a box of Powerhouses, and a box of those round pink-goo peanut blobs, whatever you call them.”

“I couldn’t interest you this mornin in some Tootsie Rolls or some Hershey Bars?”           

“In this weather?”

“You could cool em with your sody pop there.”

“I’ll do that when you invent a waterproof wrapper.”                 

“Well, how about some orange slices? They’ll keep in any weather.”

“They’ll keep forever, too, because nobody around here eats them.”

“All right. How bout me’n you seein the pitcher show over to Jasper tonight? That’s my own car out there.”

“I thank you. But I’m already set up for tonight.”                                                                         

“I bet he don’t have his own car.”                                                                                            

“No, but he’s got something a durn sight prettier than any car.”

Harington is funny, sometimes with slapstick and sometimes simply because he nails a scene perfectly, inspirng your own memories of childhood or small towns or how men flirt. (Note the spot-on dialect, which Harington claimed he summoned from his childhood; at age twelve, he lost 90 percent of his hearing to meningitis.)

Lightning Bug reaches its conclusion, sort of, when Jesus comes down from the mountain to speak to Latha in her peach orchard. She’s wondering why Avery won’t make love to her before they are married.

“You don’t approve of fornication?” she asks. 

Jesus says: “Oh, that word! What I was talking about . . . was unchastity and immorality without love or even affection. Marriage is in the heart anyway. I could name you several billion married couples who are committing fornication with each other as far as I’m concerned . . . let’s say I’ve spoken out against betrayal. I’m on record as opposed to uncleanness and dissipation, and I’ve taken a rather strong stand against cuckoldry, because in a triangle somebody’s liable to get hurt. But I thought I’ve made it pretty clear that my supreme commandment is ‘You better love your neighbor the same way you love yourself.’ And that means all neighbors, male and female.”

Pantheism. Free love. (Harington was a creature of the 1960s, after all.) Harington’s work exists on a higher and lower plane all at once, and it’s never reached a wide audience. Jesus’ speech is radical in a country that always, always returns to its puritanical origins. Scholars lament that Harington, who died in 2009, never found the wide readership of Twain or Vonnegut, or the classic literary status of Nabokov or Garcia-Marquez. Speaking as a fiction writer, I find his talent and knowledge to be overwhelmingly instructive, but that’s the problem. He’s a writer’s writer.