Clash Between Old and New

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Marc Hess’ The Gillespie County Fair is a slight novel at just under 200 pages, but packed with a cast of interrelated characters. It takes a bit of time and patience to sort out who is who, and who is related to who. It becomes especially complicated as the novel goes on.

In the small town of Fredericksburg, Texas, things are changing. The poor but proud descendants of German settlers who make up Fredericksburg are adjusting to having their town “discovered”, and gentrified, by moneyed outsiders. Characters frequently pepper their speech with German expressions. (As a lifelong East Coaster, I found the effect similar to listening to the speech of Amish people.)

Carel Geische, one of those Germanic old-timers, is hoping to combine the familiar old ways with new-style money. The novel begins with Carel pulling a shady real-estate deal with an old friend who, to say the least, isn’t in much of a position to negotiate. It quickly becomes apparent that Carel is not as successful as he pretends to be or as well-liked as he thinks he is.

Carel’s estranged daughter Willow, who lives with his first wife, represents the future. At 20, she is waiting tables for tourists and just beginning her life. She has some major decisions to make and some major problems to resolve. She occasionally comforts herself with cutting, which is portrayed somewhat graphically in the novel.

The first half of the novel proceeds slowly, mostly setting up characters and situations. Things come to a head when both the titular Gillespie County Fair and Carel’s cousin Max Ritzi return to town. Max has been successful in business, but not in love. He has secrets. Some secrets are also being kept from him. Like Carel, Max is hoping for a piece of that new money. However, Max is disappointed to learn that things haven’t changed nearly enough in Fredericksburg for his taste yet.

Hess primarily focuses on the triumvirate of Carel, Willow, and Max throughout the novel, though we learn more about other Fredericksburg residents as well. The varying viewpoints may tax some readers’ patience. They also add layers of interest. Carel and Max dislike each other, and Willow dislikes, well, pretty much everyone and everything. Hess explores the reasons for that at a languid small-town pace. When his many pieces suddenly snap together, the effect is startling.

The Gillespie County Fair is a fun little read for those who have memory and patience. Whether one finds Hess’ fictional Fredericksburg residents worthy of those traits may vary.