Tag Archives: William Melvin Kelley

Five Rediscovered Classics I’ve Read

Cover imageI could devote this post (and many more) to the classics I read decades ago but I’ve not reread them for some time so that would be cheating. Instead, I’ve decided to stick with five reissued, lesser known books that thoroughly deserved the burst of renewed attention they attracted. Here are five rediscovered classics, four with links to full reviews on this blog.

I’m starting with John Williams’ Stoner, originally published in 1965 and reissued here in the UK in 2012 when it became that thing publishers yearn for: a word of mouth bestseller. It’s about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life. Born on a small Missouri farm in 1891, Stoner discovers a love of literature and becomes an academic, his success hard won. He finds himself in a loveless marriage, his unhappiness briefly lifted by a relationship with a young woman before academic rivalry intervenes. Williams quietly draws this understated, poignant novel to a close with Stoner’s death.

First published in 1967, the reissue of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog comes from the same publishers who brought us Stoner. Set in 1924, the novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same bedroom. When George brings home a wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, contrasting Phil’s calculated cruelty with his brother’s open-hearted kindness and leaving the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt. His descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of the inevitable Stoner comparisons made when it was reissued in 2016.Cover image

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was originally  published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement although, sadly, it still resonates today. In 1957, the descendent of a slave destroys the farm he bought from the family of a renowned Civil War general in whose home he grew up, before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins heading north leaving behind bewilderment until the white residents come to understand the repercussions of this exodus and their mood turns. The story unfolds in clean, plain prose from the perspective of a variety of characters, all white. Its ending comes as no surprise. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young.

I’m stretching the ‘five’ of this post’s heading a little here but both Nell Larsen’s novellas, Quicksand and Passing, were reissued in the same volume in 2014. Hard to mention one without the other. Passing begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Widely considered to be autobiographical, Quicksand, opens with a young woman deciding to give up her job as a teacher in an all-black school, risking all for what she hopes will be a more exciting future. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Both are powerful, thought-provoking novellas which explore race and identity but while Quicksand is a sobering, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s

Cover imageSet largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge was reissued in 2012. Written in understated elegant prose, it follows Mrs Bridge from her newly-wed days in Kansas to her widowhood and just beyond. She’s married to a lawyer, has three children and is both deeply conservative and naively innocent. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: the Bridges 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 life wishing it away or devising little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Both moving and hilarious, Connell’s novella is a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and class. Mr Bridge, its companion, was reissued a year later and is also well worth reading but Mrs Bridge remains my favourite of the two.

Any rediscovered classics you’d like to recommend?

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…