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.
This is the second American classic I’ve read in a month; the third if we’re counting discrete works rather than volumes. There must be something in the publishing air. This one’s very different from Nella Larsens’s Quicksand and Passing which explore race and identity in the 1920s in a very personal way. Written in 1959, John Knowles’ novel is set in a New England boarding school during the Second World War.
Gene, our narrator, has come back to Devon School fifteen years after he left. It’s not a reunion, nor is it the kind of visit when you’re held up as an example to the current inmates – he has an urgent need to revisit the site of events which have left an indelible mark on him. His story of the summer of 1943 and the events that ensue from it is set against the background of America at war. Gene and Phineas are unlikely roommates: Gene is the A-student both flattered and awed by the friendship of the athletic, impulsive and charismatic Phineas. Phineas involves the slightly nerdy Gene in all his shenanigans – inventing ridiculous games, engaging the summer school teachers in surprising conversations, seemingly unaware of the impression his impulsive behaviour has on anyone else. The dark turn events take during – and after – the ‘gypsy summer’ when the usual rules are barely enforced or flagrantly flouted, is the crux of this novel but their full shocking extent is not revealed until the final few pages.
Knowles paints a picture of an idyllic New England summer in which only a few shortages and the knowledge that ‘seniors’, just a year older than Gene and Phineas, have gone to war impinge. He tells his story in simple direct language, powerfully summoning up the claustrophobia of a small institution which thinks itself important: personalities which might otherwise be diminished in the outside world loom dangerously large. Gene’s insecurity and his failure to understand Phineas are deftly drawn – the schoolboy’s impression of the excitement of war and its reality powerfully conveyed. The final chapters of the novel are extraordinarily tense as Gene begins to understand the consequences of his misunderstanding. It’s a slim book but it packs quite a punch.
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.