The meaning of the title of this long, engrossing novel starts to come clear around page 138 – well ahead of the 200-page mark at which I planned to start complaining – so of course I wanted to share it with you. However, I’ll start with some dramatis personae.
This novel tells the story of two sets of brothers. The first section of the novel – roughly the first 100 pages – tells the story of Randall Evans and his brother, B.J. Randall is a precocious 8th grader living in Alabama in 1941. Randall’s life revolves around school, where he is part of his school’s first debate team and is named class valedictorian; his friend Henry Lee’s house, where Henry Lee has an elaborate train set and uses it primarily to stage various accidents and tragedies using the trains and some miniature people, and also where Randall meets Roger, the son of Henry Lee’s family’s African American maid; and home, where he begs to be allowed to go to high school instead of beginning work at a sawmill like most of the young men he knows and patiently and with great care uses a library book to teach his deaf brother B.J. sign language. My first thought was that B.J., who is nineteen and hulking and clueless, not because he is stupid but because before Randall’s library book no one ever thought to teach him anything, was meant as an allusion to Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, and I’m still not sure he’s not. The fact that B.J. (which stands for Benjamin Junior) and Randall also have a sister named Benja drives the point home perhaps too much. But this novel does tread on Faulkner’s territory – race relations, the south, class conflicts, the past being not dead and in fact not even past – and I am looking forward to rereading The Sound and the Fury sometime soon to dig for additional connections.
The second part of the novel is set in Humble, Maryland and concerns Dwight and Eliot. While Randall was the first-person narrator for most of Part 1, in Part 2 Dwight and Eliot alternate as narrators. Eliot is six, and his language is like fireworks exploding. He’s super-excited and super-confused about almost everything he encounters, and these extremes are present in every sentence. We learn that Eliot can’t see well because every so often his mother looks at him sadly and tells him that she and his father are saving their money and will get him glasses soon; Eliot, however, isn’t much concerned about his vision, probably because he has never seen the world in any other way. Eliot’s brother Dwight – who seems to be about ten, maybe; I don’t remember if we’ve been told his age – is a poor student but a talented artist, obsessed with cartoons and animation. Dwight’s chapters tend to revolve around his two friends: Rufus (called Roof), who is “white trash” and lives on the same street as Dwight and Eliot (who are black) and Carl, whose family of while liberal academics has recently moved to town. Dwight and Eliot’s father is a Pullman porter, and one night he brings home the labor organizer and Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who forges a connection with both Dwight and Eliot over the course of a memorable evening.
So far I have no idea how the two sets of brothers will eventually connect. World War II is imminent, so perhaps their lives will intersect due to the war. Both plot lines share a focus on the way children’s worldviews are entirely shaped by their families up to a certain point but then broaden as school, the homes of other families, and other outside forces encroach more and more on that original nucleus of the family. Racial conflicts also unify the two sections. One of the more memorable scenes early in the novel is the moment when Randall defeats his father at chess for the first time, and his father decides to celebrate Randall’s victory by bringing him to his very first KKK meeting. Randall himself is of mixed feelings about the KKK. On the one hand, he develops a sort-of friendship with Roger, the son of Henry Lee’s maid (a friendship that mostly revolves around Randall renting his schoolbooks to Roger, who is intellectually voracious and wants to read the up-to-date textbooks not available at the segregated school he attends), but on the other hand, the first section of the novel ends with Randall seeing Roger and a local white high school girl kissing and is deeply shocked. The section ends with his indecision about whether to report the tryst to his father and his KKK buddies, who are right inside the house and could be mobilized immediately. In Maryland in the meantime, Dwight and Eliot’s parents are ready to go to Washington, D.C. with A. Philip Randolph to protest the exclusion of blacks from the weapons manufacturing and other well-paid wartime enterprises that are just coming into being – so it could be within the context of the Civil Rights movement that the two sets of brothers will interact, and they could well be on opposite sides.
Also – The Merchant of Venice – and specifically the “I am a Jew” speech – appears in both plot lines.
And now for the title. “The Castle” comes from Dwight’s imaginative play with Roof, whose family’s backyard is nothing more than a mound of junk. Dwight and Roof start an “Architeck Club” in Roof’s yard, and one of their first constructions is a castle. “The Magnet Carter” is Eliot’s mishearing of “Magna Carta,” which he knows has something to do with justice – but like everything else in Eliot’s world, he misunderstands it. “The Cross” is less clear at this point, though it could refer to the burning cross Randall sees at the KKK meeting with his father. There is a brief reference to a burning cross, among other things, in this paragraph, a dream sequence of Dwight’s, which is the first place in the novel where the three components of the title all appear in one place: “I’m standin in the tower Roof an me made in the Architeck Club. It ain’t that I’m small, it’s that the tower got big, life-size, castle like Roof says. I’m way up at the top lookin out. And Carl’s lookin out from one floor below me all smug, he don’t notice I’m just above. It’s like ancient times, green fields, but over yonder there’s Eliot wavin at me from Colored Street, in my dream Colored Street’s down there even in the meadows a Medieval an there in the middle a Colored Street cross from Eliot’s this little church but Eliot’s lookin the other way, his back’s to the church. An I’m tryin to figure out how to get Eliot up in the tower but he seem content fine on Colored, Eliot grinnin wavin holdin a white book with white raised letters on the cover: THE MAGNET CARTER, I see him from my castle cross Colored, an down on the groun direckly below the castle there’s Roof, he wanna cross the moat to the castle but he can’t swim, and I’m rackin my brain how to get Eliot in the castle how to get Roof in the castle when suddenly there’s fire, the cross on the church grew huge and caught afire but Eliot don’t see it, Eliot smilin up at me then Carl from the floor below turn an glance up like he knew I was there all along, an speak: Badminton?” (138-9).
As you can tell, this novel utilizes dialect and stream-of-consciousness narration, both in and out of its dream sequences. In general I have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, though Corthron – an established screenwriter and playwright – writes excellent dialogue, and the dialect rings true to my ear much more than dialect usually does in fiction. Move over, Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Twain.
It didn’t occur to me until I was typing out the long passage above that the word “Cross” in the title does not necessarily have to be a noun. Of course the reference to the burning cross is clearly present, but elsewhere in the passage “cross” seems to mean “across,” so the title could suggest that the Castle is across from the Magnet Carter – which, OK, doesn’t really mean anything right now. But maybe it will later.
I’ve read less than a quarter of this novel, but I’m really enjoying it and recommend it highly. It’s long but it skips along at a rapid pace. Corthron uses almost no exposition – we’re immersed in these narrator’s stories, scene after well-crafted scene.
And one more thing: Randall’s mother doesn’t like the KKK, and Randall remembers that once she washed his father’s KKK robes with some red clothes and turned them pink. When I read this detail, I laughed, of course, and I also wracked my brain wondering whether this laundry-induced feminizing of KKK robes has ever been used to comic effect before, in literature, film, television, or wherever. Has it? If not, the whole mass of American writers working in the last 150 years should be very, very ashamed of themselves.