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.
I’m a great fan of Daniel Kehlmann’s fiction which is why I was so keen to see his first play, The Mentor, premiered in my home town’s Ustinov Studio a couple of months ago. There I was all agog, tickets at the ready only to be too unwell to attend on the night but I gather from H that it was excellent. Consolation arrived in the shape of a new book by Kehlmann, albeit a very brief one – too short to call it a novella, more of a short story. It’s about a writer who takes himself off with his wife and daughter to a remote retreat in the hope of getting a grip on the screenplay that seems to be eluding him.
Our unnamed narrator is writing a sequel to the comedy whose royalties pay the household bills, much mocked by his actor wife in their recurring cycle of bicker and make-up. Susanna’s the one who booked the modern, mountain-top house from which our narrator stares out at stunning views while she and their four-year-old, Esther, play outside. Ideas for the film prove slippery, pressure from the producer increases and our narrator is exhausted. His dreams are troubling – a strange, narrow-eyed woman appears in them, morphing into Susanna, then back again. Rooms shift and change shape. A taciturn shopkeeper hints at strange happenings on the mountain to which there’s only one vertiginous road. Outside the shop, a woman in sunglasses tells him to ‘get away’. Meanwhile, back at the house, it seems that our narrator is not the only one haunted by bad dreams.
Kehlmann’s story starts brightly enough with a scene from the new film his narrator is trying to write but before long we’re in gothic territory as the narrator stares at the reflection of the living room in a window but finds himself missing from it. There are many familiar tropes here even for those of us who rarely read horror – that missing reflection, messages obliquely communicated, dreams becoming waking nightmares – all adroitly handled so that they’re deeply unsettling rather than stale. Whether Kehlmann wants us to think of this as a parable – a chilling depiction of a man stalled in his writing, feeling trapped by domesticity, expectation and obligation – or as a straightforward piece of horror in the Shirley Jackson mode, I’m not sure, but I’m persuaded towards the former. There’s that face morphing into Susanna’s and the house is the same age as Esther not to mention the way in which it ends. Either way, it’s a riveting read.
This novel is unlikely to appeal to everyone although we should all read it. It’s about assisted suicide, one of the great moral dilemmas of the twenty-first century Western world where medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds but not the ethical framework for dealing with its unintended consequences. Steven Amsterdam’s sharp, funny novel explores this conundrum through Evan, a nurse whose mother has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Evan is about to administer his first lethal dose to a builder riddled with cancer. Teddy’s family are with him: his wife not quite holding things together and his daughters not quite believing what’s about to happen. As a nurse on Mercy Hospital’s assisted suicide programme, a pilot project made possible by the enactment of a new law, Evan is closely monitored, part of a strict protocol carefully designed to protect all parties. His first assignment is a little bumpy but all is smoothed out in the debrief. After work, as he does every day, Evan visits Viv in the nursing home where a new treatment appears to have transformed her from the waspish, distant woman he knows and loves into the garishly made up, life and soul of the party. On one of Evan’s ‘assists’ he oversteps the mark, offering a little too much in the way of help, putting both himself and his boss in an untenable position. Soon he’s working off-grid, stepping over the line into unregulated territory, convinced that his vocation is to help those who want to be helped. Meanwhile, Viv moves out of her nursing facility, shrugging off his offers of help and urging him to find himself a life. Despite his relationship with Lon and Simon who have invited him into their lives and into their bed, the only support he’ll allow is from the roommate he met during Viv’s brief commune days. When Viv’s stabilisation dips into a disastrous decline, Evan is faced with a choice.
The Easy Way Out is an extraordinarily powerful novel, made all the more so by the knowledge of Amsterdam’s own work as a palliative care nurse. No axes are ground here: Amsterdam explores the dilemmas that surround this vexed question with compassion and humanity, leavening it all with a darkly sardonic humour – gallows if you like. Both Evan and Viv are sharply drawn. Evan’s lonely mission and its emotional fallout is painfully believable while Viv is wonderfully acerbic – Evan imagines her fury at being called ‘feisty’, that over-used cliché applied to women who speak up for themselves at a time when that’s something she can no longer do. It’s a smart, though-provoking novel that pulls no punches from its hard-hitting opening chapter to its surprising end. I was reminded of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as I read it – we all need to have conversations about our old age and decline, stop ducking the issue and pretending it won’t happen to us. And if our country decides, as some already have, that we must find a safe and secure way to legitimise assisted suicide we need to think carefully about the burden we place on those charged to assist. This is a brave novel – wise, funny and gripping. We should do Amsterdam the courtesy of giving it careful consideration.