When her sister is injured in a freak rhinoceros accident, Katherine Fontenot is forced from her decades-long, self-imposed exile in New York back to her hometown in Lousianan Cajun country. Katherine, or Katie-Lee to her family down South, is laughing along with the rest of her co-workers at the wacky news, filed briefly away as the weird news of the day for everyone, until she realises her baby sister Karen-Anne is the one who was harmed. Fifty years old and in fear of the constant stream of layoffs, Katherine eventually decides it’s time to return to the place she escaped from three decades ago, and to confront the events that sent her packing halfway across the United States in the first place. Will she be able to bury the demons of her past? Or will she discover if that’s even necessary?
Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears is a 2014 fiction novel by Ken Wheaton, and is something I’d never normally pick up. But in the name of research, and a plotline that seemed interesting enough, I bought this on Kindle and decided to try it out. I started on a slow read-through last year, in the midst of the pandemic, reading like a page a week when I could manage, getting roughly forty per cent through, but it wasn’t pushed to the forefront until this year. I had a bunch of library books waiting for me (the rest of the Hannibal Lecter series, among them) and I decided to pull out my Kindle, considering its portability and how I could just pick up any of the dozens of books I’d downloaded and read whatever took my fancy. Unlike a physical book, I could just decide I wanted to read one book, and it’d be there for me, even if I’d wholly intended on reading another. So I picked up Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears, and read it at a much faster pace this time, immersing myself in the life of Katherine Fontenot for a week. And well, you know what? I actually enjoyed it!
Katherine is a Facebook-obsessed middle-aged woman who spends her time scrolling her newsfeed, drinking at the same bar, hooking up with random guys, and having too many anti-anxiety pills in a futile attempt to repress a traumatic past. She comes from traditional, Cajun stock, and this is recounted through flashbacks of her life in Louisiana, so much the book is almost fifty per cent flashbacks. Not that I mind! While I’m not even American, these scenes had a lot of rich backstory and character that it felt like Wheaton was writing from experience. I liked that each of the Fontenot siblings—Kurt Junior, Karla-Jean, Kendra-Sue, Katie-Lee, Karen-Anne, and Joey/Kane—all had distinctive personalities and they all reacted differently to the changes and trauma. There was a lot of Back in my daying, not just from Mama and Daddy, but from Katherine herself; even though she doesn’t like her own past and is contemptuous of her Cajun roots to her fancy middle-class New York colleagues and friends, pretending she isn’t a fan of it, but through the flashbacks and witticisms and thoughts, she believes she is better than, say, her younger, happier co-worker because of her past. She is complex and convoluted, and while she says a lot of dumb things and seems unable to deal with her past, that makes her all the more human. She struggles to deal with the main trauma of the past, the events that precipitated and set everything into motion, and even when she’s caught in the middle of her two sisters fighting at a wake, or at a random subway punch-on, what she’s learnt to survive is to follow the flight section of the fight-or-flight reflex, the reverse of her older sister Kendra-Sue. Even though she’s “escaped” from her life in Opelousas, Katherine can’t seem to let go of staying in contact with Kendra-Sue or her ex-husband Howie. She is stuck in place, like so many before and after her, unable to deal with conflict, just watching life pass her by, consuming, viewing, watching from afar. She is not some out-there protagonist; Katherine is just your run-of-the-mill person—an Adrian Mole without the hyperbole—and her reactions reflect that.
The Southern backdrop just added more of a personality to Katherine’s backstory, instead of the default “escape from the sticks into the city” sort of shtick, and as someone not even from America, let alone somewhere like New York City, I found Cajun culture fascinating. How one country can be so varied, with so many people from different walks of life, only to constantly hear on the internet how the United States has “no culture”! Of course, this even includes the negatives, and the political. Katherine’s Louisianan family call the people up north the “libruls” and her co-workers call Louisianans backwards Christian nutjobs; her older sister Karla-Jean dealt with the trauma of the past by becoming a devout fundamentalist Christian who eschews even social media because her pastor says it’s for the devil; Katherine constantly mentions how she’s surprised her family has befriended her Asian-American ex-husband Howie, and how they’ve accepted a lesbian couple in the family (Karen-Anne’s daughter and daughter-in-law) but how they have to keep the latter a secret from the wider family at the wake because the extended family won’t understand. As much as Katherine wishes (or once wished) to be separate from her family, she is a product of that upbringing, revelling in the positive memories of Louisiana, holding onto them as way to repress the negatives (such as her love of Popeyes and inability to find proper Southern fried chicken in NYC), and her sometimes vaguely racist thoughts about her ex-husband. For the most part, I enjoyed the flashbacks, even when they slowly revealed the dark and ugly truth, and it made me feel a kind of secondhand nostalgia for a place I’ve never visited. Even though most of the present-day is set with Katherine in New York (and the New York scenes felt just as immersive in the life of the nine-to-five grind and the water-cooler gossip and all that goes with that), the novel will probably be enjoyed by people who grew up in that region of the United States the most.
What threw me off were the couple of spelling mistakes—and no, I’m not talking about the “yalls” (Wheaton loathes “y’all”), but I’ll let that off the hook since this novel isn’t published by one of the Big Five, and subeditors are in short supply these days. Seriously, if even Coca-Cola don’t know how to use apostrophes, what hope do the rest of us have? I didn’t particularly find Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears to have a lot of that dark humour that book synopsis bandies about, unless it’s Katherine’s constant “millennials bad” routine, which I just saw as an unhealthy coping mechanism that helps her get through the days. There are the totes wacky events, like the fight at the wake and how Karen-Anne was injured, but I just saw these as plot devices, and wacky things happen every single day, even to women like Katherine who appear run-of-the-mill. Even these over-the-top situations had realism infused in them; naturally Karen-Anne, who works at a zoo, could be trampled by a rhino. Even the predictabley ending where Karen-Anne become the call to arms for Katie-Lee to live her life to the fullest has a “comedic” elements, thanks to Kurt Junior’s words of wisdom. It feels like the events of one of those revered cult movies like He died with a felafel in his hand or Withnail and I, but in a uniquely American setting, and even though I don’t usually watch those sorts of movies often, when I do—as with Wheaton’s book—I held on for dear life and enjoyed the ride. Apparently these are dark comedies just like this one, so maybe it’s just me in denial about the genre…
Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears by Ken Wheaton is an immersive, enjoyable read. If you enjoy stories about people escaping from their past and a single event forcing them to reevaluate and confront those past events, with a Cajun American setting, then you’ll probably enjoy this. Protagonist Katherine Fontenot is complex, annoying, likeable, contradictory, and her inability to deal with her past traumas makes her relatable and just like a regular person. Most of the other characters are interesting enough that, even though the big reveal is kinda predictable, you just want to keep reading about the lives of these random, fictional Americans. Wheaton’s writing style is unique and memorable. While I probably won’t reread this, I liked this novel for what it was, and if you go into it expecting a light read (despite the subject) and are willing to sit through a book that has far too many flashbacks, you’ll be a yall toting Popeyes lovin’ Southerner in no time.