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Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman coverLee, Harper. New York: Harper, 2015. 278 pp.

When news broke of Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel, the first version and sequel to the events of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Salon interviewed Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham. In that interview, published 4 Feb. 2015, Burnham claimed of the new novel, “It is completely finished. It needs virtually no editing. The only editing I think it needs is perhaps a light copy edit. It looks to me like a book that’s been worked on and polished, and is very much a finished thing.” Millions of readers now know that it is no such thing; Watchman is a draft, more polished and complete in its early pages than in its hasty conclusion.

News of Atticus Finch’s racism in the new novel is no longer, well, news, of course, but that aspect of the story is much less disturbing to me. The Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is an idealized hero, a caricature created by the novel’s point of view, that of young Scout. He’s a dangerous caricature at that: the white savior who swoops in to save the (by implication) helpless black victim. Continue Reading »

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Wise Blood

By Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. 236 Wise Blood Coverpp.

First published in 1952, O’Connor’s novella, Wise Blood, tells the story of Hazel Motes, recently discharged from the army and entirely alone in the world. The town he grew up in has died, as have his parents and brothers, and when he returns to the rotting family home, a piece of the roof falls on his head as he sleeps. He sets off for “the city,” Taulkinham, “to do some things I never have done before” (7).

The grandson of a preacher, Motes has become the founder of “The Church Without Christ,” and he seems to delight in explaining to all he meets that they are not redeemed. O’Connor calls this a comic novel in her introduction to the second edition but as in all her work, she is completely serious about religion, even while drawing characters who are scathing indictments of believers and nonbelievers alike. Motes falls in with prostitutes and charlatans, the innocent and the calculating, all portrayed in the harsh light of O’Connor’s unforgettable prose. Enoch Emery, a lonely 18-year-old who follows Motes around has “yellow hair and a fox-shaped face,” (34) and the preacher Motes shadows says “’Jesus loves you’ . . . in a flat mocking voice” (49). For me, reading O’Connor is a challenge, though an engaging one. Continue Reading »

Known to Evil

By Walter Mosley.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.  326 pp.Known to Evil cover

Walter Moseley’s mysteries are everything I want for a long plane ride or quiet afternoon at home—gripping, intricately plotted, and populated with flawed and fascinating characters.  In Known to Evil, Leonid McGill is a former thug who is trying to live a straight life as a private detective, but he can’t entirely extricate himself from his past, and his favorite son seems to be following his path to the dark side.  McGill is frank about his failings, musing, “if I had ever in my life been able to make sensible choices . . . I wouldn’t have been on that street, in my marriage, under the scrutiny of New York’s finest, or in any other way known to evil” (242).  He knows his flaws, but McGill can’t escape the shadows. Continue Reading »

Home

By Toni Morrison.  New York: Knopf, 2012. 147 pp.Home book cover

Home is a poem of a book, lyric and symbolic; it’s appropriate that its final chapter is a ten-line verse.  Compared to the scope of Morrison’s epic novels like Beloved and Song of Solomon, this is the Platonic love of novels—rich, complex, gorgeous, but so suggestive of possible further delights that it leaves us wanting more.  Still, its almost allegorical ending provides a satisfying resolution.

Home is the story of Frank Money, so broken by the loss of his two best friends in the Korean war that after his discharge, he settles in Seattle, about as far as he can get from his home in Lotus, Georgia, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield” (83).  After receiving a letter that tells him his sister, Cee, is dying, Frank leaves a crumbling relationship and heads across the country. Continue Reading »

Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! coverBy Karen Russell.  New York: Vintage Books, 2011.  397 pp.

Samplandia! is one part fairy tale, one part true crime, an unsettling combination of realism and fantasy that abandons some of its symbols for social commentary.  It’s as if the Grimm Brothers had explained that the wolf demanded sexual favors from Red Riding Hood before eating her grandmother.  In her acknowledgments, Russell thanks Katherine Dunn, among others, and if you’re a fan of the raw quirkiness of Geek Love, you’ll likely enjoy this novel.

Swamplandia! begins as fiction with a capital F, its layers of invention assuring us that we are entering storyland.  Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree, “born Ernest Schedrach, the white son of a white coal miner in Ohio,” buys the family’s island as farmland in a land lottery (30). Continue Reading »

Trouble No More

By Anthony Grooms.  Kennesaw, GA: Kennesaw U Press, 2006.  198 pp.Trouble No More cover

First published in 1995, Trouble No More won the Lillian Smith Award, which recognizes books that, like Smith herself, challenge American conceptions of race and social justice.  In his preface, Grooms explores the sin of slavery, though he questions whether it is “the great sin of America,” saying “It is a disingenuous equation to say one injustice is greater than another” and citing, among other atrocities, the Indian removal and the Vietnam War (xxiii).  Grooms explains that “it is not recrimination I am interested in, but redemption,” though he expresses doubt about whether that is possible in America (xxviii).

Grooms explores these concerns in stories set in the south in the 60s and 70s.  The title is taken from a Muddy Waters song, and Grooms’ characters often seem to be trying to avoid trouble, trouble that nonetheless finds them.  Continue Reading »

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones coverBy Jesmyn Ward.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. 258 pp.

Salvage the Bones challenges readers to see a more complex story of Hurricane Katrina than the urban chaos and loss of New Orleans, which has so captured the public’s attention.  In the fictional town of Bois Savage, modeled on Ward’s own hometown, DeLisle, on the Mississippi gulf coast, fifteen-year-old Esch finds her father’s preparations for the storm ominous, mostly because she fears her father’s beery, unpredictable rage.

Esch is motherless and pregnant, and surrounded by boys—her three brothers and their friends, who have turned the family’s rural compound into a sort of Neverland where they are free to swim, play hide-and-seek, roast squirrels over an open fire and discover sex in abandoned cars.  Continue Reading »