Almost anyone who was of college age In the sixties, during the Viet Nam era, would have his or her own personal story to tell about the dreaded military draft. In Last Laugh, Beth Tally has taken one of these stories and crafted it into a novel with a clever plot that, not unlike her male protagonist,Tommy Moore, lures us on and leaves us just where she wants us to be at the end–wanting more.
Scion of a wealthy Greenville family whose fortune lies in peach orchards, Thomas Mason Moore is an anti-hero–an opportunist and a Lothario–who has just been dismissed as a cadet from the Citadel for rebellious behavior. However, the author does not depict him as a one-dimensional character, revealing that Tommy’s reckless behavior with women is born of an anger to get back at his father, who has relentlessly bullied and belittled his son throughout Tommy’s life. No matter how conniving and manipulative Tommy becomes, the author allows us to sympathize with him through the eyes of characters like Bertha, the Moore’s faithful black cook, who probably knows him best:
In her eyes she saw the little devil he’d always been; in her mind, she routinely rationalized his behavior; in her heart, she always forgave him. As long as any excuse he might give her had a shred of plausibility, she took it as truth.
The reader is predictably shocked by Tommy’s careless disposal of the array of women he lures to bed. However, not so predictably, the reader is no more immune to Tommy’s charms than the waitresses he cozies up to in all the joints he frequents. Tommy is the bad boy we know we should hate, but simply can’t.
Iris Rose McGraw, the female protagonist, grew up on the west side of town in the McAlister Mill village. Her overriding goal now that she has graduated from high school is “…to spread these wings and fly…” away from the only world she had known.
She found herself consumed in the almost desperate exercise of plotting her escape from this world, the only one she’d ever known, bounded by three eight-hour shifts at the mill, the Girls Auxiliary at the Baptist church, Nehi sodas and potato chips at the company store, and people like Warren and her parents.
As the story begins, a random chance meeting brings Tommy and Iris together in the waiting room of the Greenville General Hospital. Iris is drawn in by Tommy’s blue eyes and uniform, and Tommy is instantly attracted to Iris’s natural beauty, viewing her as his next conquest. When Tommy learns that his expulsion from the Citadel leaves him vulnerable to the draft, Iris begins to figure more prominently into his plan to qualify for a deferment. Iris, who initially sees Tommy as an exciting diversion, begins to wonder if he may also provide her with her wings to fly away from the only life she’s ever known.
The author sets the story down in her native town of Greenville, South Carolina, with vivid descriptions of the landscape drawn from her own sense of place and love for its surroundings:
Paris Mountain rose in the background, catching the pinkish radiance of the setting sun whose languid downward drift in the west gave an intriguing pattern of shadows to the vision, connecting the hundreds of peach trees together in parallel lines as the image of each merged into the next momentarily. Within a minute, the sun’s slightly further descent caused a burst of light to ricochet off the patio windows of the main house, changing the whole landscape.
Beth Tally has combined a clever plot with believable characters and vivid setting to create an engaging and satisfying story. Last Laugh is a good read and a book you don’t want to miss!