Tag Archives: A Different Drummer

A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley: Sadly pertinent

Cover imageFirst 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.

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI began my first selection of November’s new titles with what will undoubtedly be a big hitter: Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. This one kicks off with a book that its publishers are clearly hoping will also be jumping off the shelves into customers’ open arms – William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer, dubbed by the New Yorker ‘the lost giant of American literature’ which has been appearing in my Twitter feed for months. Set in the smalltown South, it opens in 1957 when a young black man destroys his farm and livestock before leaving the state, swiftly followed by the entire African-American population. First published in 1962, ‘A Different Drummer is an exploration of what it is like to live in a white-dominated society. It’s a transparent, brutally honest portrayal of the impact and repercussions of systematized oppression; with a culmination as unflinching and unrivalled as its author’s insights’ say the publishers, hoping for a Stoner-like bestseller, I’m sure

Lucia Berlin’s superb collection A Manual for Cleaning Women was also heralded as a lost classic, comprising stories stretching back into the ‘60s. Those of us who thought that might be the last of Berlin, who died in 2004, have an unexpected treat to look forward to with Evening in Paradise which takes us from Texas to Chile, from New Mexico to New York. ‘Evening in Paradise is a careful selection from Lucia Berlin’s remaining stories – a jewel box follow-up for her hungry fans’ say the publishers whetting our appetites nicely.

Louisa Hall’s Trinity is about Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, told from the perspective of seven fictional characters and revealing the contradictory character of this brilliant scientist. ‘Blending science with literature and fiction with biography, Trinity asks searing questions about what it means to truly know someone, and about the secrets we keep from the world and from ourselves’ according to the blurb. It sounds fascinating. I’ve not read much fiction about the development of the bomb which shaped the second half of the twentieth century apart from The Wives of Los Alamos, Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos. Cover image

It seems fitting to end with what’s being billed as a pacifist novel after that. Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth begins in the remote Carpathian mountains where Piotr’s limited ambitions are fixed on a job with the railway, a cottage and a bride with a dowry until he finds himself drafted into the army to fight in the First World War. ‘In a new translation, authorised by the author’s daughter, The Salt of the Earth is a strongly pacifist novel inspired by the Odyssey, about the consequences of war on ordinary men’ say the publishers, landing us back where we started in rediscovered classic territory.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your interest and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…