By Pamela Tarajcak
Imagination of the Heart is the last book in the Sailor and Lulas series. It picks up 18 years after the close of Bad Day for the Leopard Man and finds widowed Lula back in North Carolina.
Sometime after 2005, Pace, still single, has opened a construction company in New Orleans after Katrina. Eighty year old Lula is back in Bay St. Clement because she couldn’t stand being in the the place that held so many memories so she might as well go be near Dal, who eventually died after a fall at the age of 92. She still misses him like crazy and has nightmares sometimes with him in them. Soon, Beany visits and through conversations we learn about a marriage to Elmo Pleasant, her children with him, and her stint in an asylum because of her terrible marriage to him. She lives with her daughter Hedy Lamarr Music, Hedy’s husband Delivery, and their teenage son Milton (who Beany says will live pathetically with his parents until he is 37). Beany also is still interested in having a sex life and hits on many young men throughout the book, but Lula, still head over heels in love with Sail, is slightly scandalized at her best friend’s behavior.
Even though newly arrived, Beany, gets wanderlust and talks Lula into a road trip back to New Orleans. Though reticent to see the destroyed city, at first, Lula agrees. Leaving in September, they take a long circuitous journey. At a Charleston Bed and Breakfast, they meet this young 20-something named Epistrophy Trane Taylor, who just calls himself ET. He’s traveling around and seeing the sites of this country (kind of like a more well-adjusted, less-surreal Wally Brando Brennan). Lula and Beany allow him to tag along. They talk about faith, music, and meditation along the way. Contemplating life, Lula still dreams of Sailor and is looking forward to seeing Pace.
In Savannah, Georgia, the women and ET go to a nightclub. Beany is tempted to seduce ET. But ET dances and is completely taken with an Arab Israeli, Jamilla. Even though Beany tries to get Lula to enjoy herself, Lula confesses that this scene isn’t for old folks which offends the “forever young” Beany. When Lula looks around at the dance floor, ET and Jamilla are gone. The next morning, the women, ready to leave, are still waiting for ET. Just as they’re ready to go without him, he pulls up in Jamilla’s car with a black eye, saying he got into a fight with one of her old beaus. When he kisses Jamilla goodbye, she stabs him to death and flees. The women are in complete and utter shock. Having to remain in town for the investigation, Beany comforts the Taylors and Lula is hauntingly reminded of Big Tuna. She calls Pace to update him and he says that he has an apartment ready for them. Though giving statements, they leave once Jamilla confesses to everything.
Throughout the remainder of the trip, ET’s murder provides a pall over the women’s moods. Lula reminisces about the past while Beany worries about her family in the present. Going through Alabama, Beany learns some concerning news during a call home. Hedy thinks Delivery is having an affair with a young, vixenish singer at their church called Jacey Spikes. Delivery only maintains that he’s giving free produce to her because she’s down on her luck. Hedy knows that Jacey was responsible for the last minister at the church leaving so has cause to worry. At a hotel, Lula thinks about how the world has gone darker since she and Sail were young and thanks God that Pace didn’t have children as she would be worrying about them having to live in this increasingly crueler world. Getting closer to New Orleans, Beany tries to reassure Lula that most of the city has been rebuilt except for the poorer regions.
Finally, Lula and Beany cross into New Orleans via the Huey P. Long Bridge, causing Lula to cry as this was her first time across that bridge since Sailor died. At an apartment building owned by Pace’s old girlfriend of Pace’s, Marnie Kowalski, Beany and Lula immediately fall in love with Marnie as she’s quite the woman. In the parking lot, there is a strange teenage girl Eclair Feu who was abandoned by her family during the hurricane. She’s been kind of camping out at the apartment complex. After a very strange conversation, she floats away from Beany and Lula as if in a trance.
Throughout the next few chapters, Beaney, Lula and Pace catch up and Lula meets the important people in Pace’s life including a nightclub owner named Komgang Lee, a refugee from North Korea. Marnie also introduces the women to her new boyfriend, a director named Doncovay Abidjan who is impressed that Lula knew Philip Real, one of his idols. Pace takes them around the town to his projects and building sites. He also takes them by the old Ripley residence which remained mostly undamaged to Lula’s relief.
Soon things change for the worse when Beany calls Hedy to catch up. She tells her mother that Milton walking out of his bedroom, fatally shoots Delivery and calmly walks back into his bedroom. Beany wants to leave immediately to help her family out. Feeling an eternal sense of appreciation for Beany, Lula wants to be there to support her friend. When they make it to Plain Dealing, Hedy fills in Beany with what happened and Lula wonders what her next steps in the journey will be after staying with Beany’s family for a few days to help out. She thinks that either she should go back to Pace on her own, or ask Pace if he could take a few vacation days to meet her up there. She contemplates how different Pace was from Milton (who she considers a “forever child”). She thanks God that Sailor did everything a father knew possible to keep Pace on the right track, even though there was that business with the Rattlers. Lula had always known about that unfortunate incident but never revealed to either father or son what she considered was something between them. She then contemplates all the parentless children of the world. “Jesus said suffer little children and forbid them not to come unto me for such is the kingdom of heaven. What about a forever boy like Melton not right in his brain what happens to him? I am ready for an answer why theres endless madness and suffering on the planet all I know is everything been out of control from the beginning.” (689).
In chapter 40, the major change happens. Beany and Hedy visit Melton when Hedy gets a call. Her brother Spike had to drive Lula to the hospital as she unresponsive in a chair. They think she had a stroke and is now in a coma. Suddenly, Beany recalls Lula as the 20 year old nervous young woman having drink with her the day before Sailor gets out of PeeDee (which was the conversation that opened Wild at Heart). The very short Chapter 41 has only these words. “Sailor took Lula’s hand in his. ‘Thanks for waitin’, Sail,’ Lula said. ‘Peanut,’ said Sailor, ‘don’t give it another thought.” The book ends with Beany writing a letter to Pace comforting him. She writes about dark matter having a war with light matter and some other physics theories she read about. “Lula was my dearest friend more than a sister for almost all of our lives and I considered her a powerful force of love which is the biggest mystery after all how she could keep on the way she did being good and thoughtful of others without getting fooled too much. Now the dark energy come pulled her away from us and I dont mean Satan who is only an excuse exists in stupid peoples minds. Lulas soul is swirling in space part of the expansion of the universe which is bigger for her having been and being.” (694).
This book is about the strangest of the lot. The pacing’s still there, the witty dialog is still there, but there are too many inconsistencies and the structure is not the same as the others in the series. This could be because Gifford published the rest of the works from 1989-1992 and this one was published in 2009, so he may have forgotten some details of his previous work. The most egregious of continuity errors was Beany’s whole backstory. In the original works, Beany was many times married and eventually settled with Bob Lee, the owner of Gator Gone. In this, it seems Beany only married once, to Elmo who was not a business owner and whom she later divorced after her institutionalization. Therefore, without Beany being married to Bob Lee, who gives Sailor a job in New Orleans where he can support Lula and Pace in style? If Sailor never worked for Gator Gone, why is he on the Huey P. Long Bridge in the first place (as he was traveling for Gator Gone when he died)? Another inconsistency was Lula’s memories of Marietta. Throughout the course of the series, Marietta Pace Fortune was never, never a Bible thumper, yet Lula remembers her so. She also remembers Marietta reading a book to Santos on Santos’ death bed, yet, in Consuelo’s Kiss, Lula wasn’t even in North Carolina when Santos died as she was taking Sailor on his Fiftieth Birthday trip to Memphis.
The structure was also very, very different. The chapters in previous books were unnumbered and only titled. This one has only numbered chapters and it alternates (not consistently) between third person perspective and first person, as if Lula was writing in some diary of hers. The diary parts were hard to read as Lula, due to her education level, didn’t write grammatically correct. So there was practically no punctuation throughout the whole of those chapters, nor were their paragraph breaks. They were just long stream of consciousness paragraphs, which often resulted in a dense and hard to read wall of text.
Besides these two major flaws, the book was okay. The end was poignant with Lula dying and running straight into Sail’s arms. It was also lovely that Gifford realized that the real center and heart of the series was not Sailor and Lula as a couple, but Lula as her own character becoming the true light in the darkness for everyone. I will make a note, for everyone uncomfortable with any mention of Christianity, religion, or the Bible, steer clear of this last book as Lula’s thoughts often turn to scriptural reflections and thoughts about Jesus and God. Though, I thought those sections were lovely and beautiful. It surely gave me something to think about.
Overall thoughts on the series.
Overall, I must say that I loved the series, even though it’s not typically something I read. I loved it’s wise cracking humor and the brisk pacing throughout each of the works. The characters are endearing and well-written.
It shocked me to realize that Lula was 80 in 2009, which would make Wild at Heart set in 1950. That makes some sense why they never had Powermad in it or why Elvis was never a big deal to Sailor as Lynch made him out to be, Elvis wasn’t a big deal to any one in 1950. It also makes sense why the series feels timeless yet almost stuck in the past and why Sailor and Lula were old souls. They weren’t old souls, per se, just members of a generation that no one considered. Because of the heavy influence the movie has on the readers, one thinks that Sailor and Lula are late generation Boomers and not members of the Silent Generation (those born during the 1930s and 1940s). It also makes sense with all the “racist” talk and the stereotyping of certain ethnicities, that the characters in the books lived well before integration and diversity. It was interesting how Sailor, Lula and their friends and relations lived through the tumult of the Mid-Twentieth century yet never mentioned the major news stories of the day, except once when in 1979, (Consuelo’s Kiss, if one does the math) where the couple were planning on visiting the motel where Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.
Some questions that linger from the series. Whatever happened to Johnnie and Perdita? They seemed like characters that Gifford sometimes forgot about. Why did such inconsistencies exist in Imagination of the Heart? What was the real point of Perdita Durango getting her own book if she was going to be almost a non-character in the rest of the series?
Lastly, if I was to rank my least to most favorite:
- Sultans of Africa (too many characters being uncharacteristic, Lula’s story felt entirely too tacked on, the plot was a little too lurid, and the villains too one dimensional)
- Bad Day for the Leopard Man (too much time spent with Philip Real and too little time spent with our favorite characters led to a weak plot and the deflating ending was too unsatisfying) 5. Imagination of the Heart (the plot inconsistencies and Lula’s un-grammatical diaries were a chore to read, but the story was good)
- Perdita Durango (A good story but too unrelated to the rest of the series to entirely be impactful).
- Sailor’s Holiday (Very plotty but ultimately really, really satisfying with the reunion at the end)
- Consuelo’s Kiss (Gentle and refreshing plot after the turgidity of Sultans, very satisfying all around, and such a wonderfully funny and head-spinning ending)
- Wild at Heart (The Best of them all for obvious reasons).