First published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was championed earlier this year by the New Yorker who dubbed Kelley a ‘lost giant of American literature’. His novel is set in 1957 in an unnamed Southern state where the descendent of a slave performs an act which triggers the departure of the state’s black population in its entirety.
Tucker Caliban is the descendent of an African so fierce he’s been immortalised in a tale told frequently on the veranda of Sutton’s local stores by the town’s self-appointed elder to an audience of sharecroppers. Tucker, himself, is a taciturn man who grew up in the home of the Willsons, the family of a renowned Civil War general who paid money for the African. As a child, Tucker shared a room and bedtime stories with Dewey Willson, two years his junior. Fresh from his first year at college in the North, Dewey has come home to find that Tucker has set about systematically destroying the farm he bought from Dewey’s father two months ago before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins packing up and heading north leaving behind a bewilderment shared by the black pastor who arrives in a chauffeur-driven limousine asking questions about these strange events. As men, women and children pass by – some in cars, others on foot, all with their bags packed – the occupants of the veranda come to understand the repercussions of the black exodus and their mood turns.
Kelley begins his novel dramatically with the tale of Tucker Caliban’s ancestor, the African, an almost mythic figure. The rest of his story is told from the perspective of a variety of characters, from Harry Leland who is trying to raise his nine-year-old son to respect black people to David Willson, the idealistic descendent of the General. All are white. In clean, plain prose, each character delivers their own interpretation sketching in background details to Tucker’s calm act of destruction while revealing the complexity and nuances of the relationship between black and white through their stories. The ending, heartrendingly misinterpreted by Harry Leland’s young son as he lies in bed, comes as no surprise.
This new edition comes with a foreword by Kathryn Schulz explaining how the novel came to be republished together with some background to both the man and his work. I often skip these essays but this one’s well worth reading. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, his debut. It’s an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young. Its rediscovery feels all too timely in the light of the current US administration, although it had its own Brexit resonance for me.
Both Joan London’s previous novels – Gilgamesh and The Good Parents – stand out for me as fine examples of clean, elegant writing, free of unnecessary ornament. Both also share the theme which runs through The Golden Age: the plight of the outsider, or in this case, outsiders. Frank is the thirteen-year-old son of Jewish-Hungarian parents, refugees settled in 1950s Australia. He and Elsa are patients recovering from polio in a children’s convalescent home, both of them now shunned by society. Set in the years immediately before the discovery of an effective polio vaccination, London’s novel quietly and compassionately explores the far-reaching effects of this devastating illness.
Converted from an old pub on the outer edge of suburban Perth, the Golden Age is Frank’s second rehabilitation home. He left the first shortly after the death of Sullivan, the eighteen-year-old who had shown him the way to what he is convinced is his vocation as a poet. Frank is a determined boy, zipping around the Golden Age in his wheelchair, wanting to know what’s going on and zeroing in on Elsa who, like him, is one of the oldest patients. Frank’s parents came to Australia from a refugee camp in Vienna, both scarred by the war. Elsa’s mother struggles with her strong-minded sister-in-law while her father is the one who visits Elsa. Frank and Elsa draw closer together then they are to their families, sharing confidences and coming to an understanding that their futures will not be quite as they had planned. Life at the Golden Age is lived in a bubble, the background hum of the Netting factory sending the children to sleep at night under the quietly watchful eye of Sister Penny, to be woken next morning for their rehabilitation routines. This peaceful rhythm is broken when Frank and Elsa’s relationship wanders into territory deemed inappropriate by the institution’s governors.
London’s story is told largely from Frank’s perspective, punctuated by his memories of life in wartime Budapest and his friendship with Sullivan. Her characters are beautifully observed, fleshed out with lightly yet clearly sketched detail: Frank’s father’s feelings of dislocation and loss; Nurse Penny’s compassionate care of the children and her occasional escape into sex; Ida’s struggle to keep Frank safe in Budapest and her disappointment with Australia. The writing is gracefully restrained yet often vivid: ‘Soon, in a bright swarm they would descend on the children and leave them splinted, smoothed, kissed, the curtains drawn against the dark’ beautifully describes the young nurses preparing the children for bed; ‘There was something lonely yet resolute about the way they stood there. It was not quite hope’ remembers Frank of his parents on board the ship bound for Australia. The aloneness of these children is achingly apparent as they share their ‘onset stories’, knowing that the healthy have stigmatised them and their families out of terror of being struck down themselves. London’s novel conveys the horror and sadness of this terrible illness with great humanity offering the solace of love and hope of recovery.
I’ve read some sad books this year – I Refuse and Academy Street spring to mind – but none as sad as Suzanne McCourt’s The Lost Child set in small town Australia. At one stage I thought I might have to give it up but her writing is so impressive that I decided to tough it out. So there it is, a fine book but with a health warning.
Sylvie is both the eponymous lost child and its narrator. She’s almost five when the novel opens: bright, obsessed with the Phantom comics her older brother Dunc hoards and constantly on the lookout for trouble between her parents. It’s the 1950s: the Second World War is still fresh in everyone’s memory although her father rarely talks about it. He’s at odds with his brother, angry, violent and plays away with That Trollop, as her mother calls his mistress. Gossip at Burley Point points to the bombing of Darwin and what he saw there to explain his bad behaviour. Sylvie keeps her head down, follows Dunc around, sneaking into his bedroom to catch up with the Phantom when he’s not there. Dunc’s disappearance after Sylvie lets slip a dark truth about her father is a hammer blow. McCourt’s novel follows Sylvie through her parents’ divorce, her mother’s breakdown and her father’s spiteful cruelty, through tragedy and the odd glimmer of hope until, aged fifteen she reluctantly leaves the town where she grew up.
It’s a brave thing to tell your story through the voice of a character beginning when she’s five but McCourt carries it off expertly which is what makes her novel so powerful. Sylvie’s watchful puzzlement at her parents’ imploding marriage, her attempts to make sense of the adult conversations which say more than they should and the awfulness of being marked out by poverty and divorce at school are all the more vivid told through her own voice. McCourt manages the transition through the years brilliantly: Sylvie is as convincing at fifteen as she was at five. And lest you think it’s all doom and gloom – there are some wonderful comic moments: Sylvie’s abduction of a particularly beautiful ‘kitten’ when the circus comes to town is beautifully done. It’s quite an achievement, so much so that I had to double-check to make sure it was a first novel which indeed it is.
Thanks to the miracle of a gloriously sunny Bank Holiday there’s been more walking than reading over the past few days. With its episodic style, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge fitted this kind of weekend nicely. Written in understated elegant prose, it’s made up of 117 short pieces following Mrs Bridge from her newly wed days in the 1920s to her widowhood and just beyond. Mrs Bridge lives in Kansas City, is married to a lawyer and has three children. She is deeply conservative, shocked by the slightest deviation from the conventions of the day and naively innocent. Her life is uneventful, her husband spends almost every waking hour working and her children grow up and away from her leaving her bereft. It’s a novel which manages to be both moving and hilarious – Mrs Bridge throws caution to the winds and decides to go without stockings only to be caught out by her most strait-laced neighbours, she seems puzzled by the concept of homosexuality and is deeply unsettled by her son’s abuse of the guest towels. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: an ill-disciplined young boy shoots his parents in their beds and the Bridges must cut short their six-week European jaunt because Hitler has invaded Poland which seems to be more of an inconvenience to them than a shattering world event. Mrs Bridge’s greatest enemy is time. Housework and cooking are taken care of by the maid and Mrs Bridge spends much of her time wishing it away or coming up with little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Set largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, it’s a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and a particular class.
I did wonder why Mrs Bridge didn’t find herself a good book during her periods of clock-watching and she does give Conrad a whirl but puts him back on the shelf. No doubt she was unable to find a character she would want for a friend as a journalist who interviewed Claire Messud about her novel The Woman Upstairs seemed to think readers want. Messud’s acerbic riposte that you wouldn’t want to be friends with Hamlet etc. etc. caught the attention of Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. For a news programme it’s a bit slow off the mark sometimes – the interview was way back in April. Fay Weldon and Sarah Dunant were debating how valid the interviewer’s question was and whether we should be expected to like woman characters just because they’re female. There was a nice little barb from Dunant who wondered why she’d been in the studio for an hour and had yet to hear a female voice. Mrs Bridge would have been astonished that Dunant expected women to have such jobs let alone voice her views so assertively.