Eudora Welty loves family reunions. Sometimes they're farcical, like the Peacocks piling into the courtroom in The Ponder Heart, or Fay's inimical family showing up unasked for at the funeral in The Optimist's Daughter. Sometimes they're intricate and profound, like the wedding party in Delta Wedding. The family reunion in Losing Battles lies somewhere between those poles when they flock to the small town of Banner to celebrate Granny's 98th birthday.
For Welty, family is inescapable, so you might as well learn how to embrace it. The defining hallmark of Southern culture, you might say, is its love of family--the Beechams and the Renfros who spend the whole of the novel swapping stories they already know certainly think that way. Almost all of Losing Battles is dialogue, and it covers three main stories: 1.) the complex and convoluted story of how Jack Renfro ended up in jail, 2.) speculation about the parentage of Jack's wife, the orphan Gloria, and 3.) the story of Miss Julia Mortimer, the old Banner schoolteacher who terrorized everyone as a child, and who has recently passed away.
The family figures out, to their delight, that Gloria may be the daughter of a troubled cousin of theirs. She insists it's not possible, but they force her to eat watermelon and claim her birthright:
She struggled wildly at first as she tried to push away the red hulk shoved down into her face, as big as a man's clayed shoe, swarming with seeds, warm with rain-thin juice.
They were all laughing. "Say Beecham!" they ordered her, close to her ear. They rolled her by the shoulders, pinned her flat, then buried her face under the flesh of the melon with its blood heat, its smell of evening flowers. Ribbons of juice crawled on her neck and circled it, as hands robbed of sex spread her jaws open.
"Can't you say Beecham? What's wrong with being Beecham?"
Gloria's insistence on being parentless, on being apart, is suspect. To have no family is to be no one, and the trade-off that allows you to create your own identity is one of little worth to the Beechams. It's only later that they realize that if Gloria and Jack are cousins, their marriage may be invalid, but in the end it doesn't matter--the family has been brought full circle, and into another kind of reunion.
Even for Welty, whose work is strange in lots of subtle ways, Losing Battles isn't like anything I've ever read. Only late in the novel does Welty give into her love of obscure descriptions of inner life, when all the family is asleep except for the young boy, Vaughn. The rest of the book is almost all storytelling, and hums with Mississippian vernacular. The members of the family are never well individuated, except for Gloria and Jack, but that's all right; like Vaughn observes, the voices of a family combine to make something greater than the sum of their parts, which he associates with the nature of the world.
Not everything lands--I couldn't tell what was going on, for the most part, with a long interlude where a car gets stuck on the side of the mountain. I get the impression, as I did with Delta Wedding, that these characters are so alive and real to Welty that only flashes of that life really makes it to the page. But it is frequently beautiful and thoughtful, and if you grew up in the South like I did, the dialogue is a welcome kind of music.