This novel has transcended everything I wrote about it in my earlier review. It’s still a novel about two sets of brothers, though both families grow estranged, and the brothers are separated (in one case, permanently – by a death) from one another for most of their adult lives. The first set is B.J. and Randall Evans of Prayer Ridge, Alabama. In the novel’s opening chapters, Randall uses a library book to teach B.J., who is deaf, the rudiments of sign language. Young Randall also participates in a debate tournament, serves as his eighth-grade class valedictorian, and finally convinces his father to let him go to high school instead of going to work in the local sawmill with most of the other men in his town. Randall’s life – in the opening chapters as well as throughout the novel – is overshadowed by the racism of his community and by the KKK, membership in which is deemed by most adults in town as a clear marker of responsible citizenship.
When we next encounter Randall, he is in his late twenties and working at the very sawmill he evaded when he was thirteen. Since this novel is written entirely in scene and with only occasional exposition, I did not at first know that the narrator of the third part of the novel was Randall. His voice is different – it’s coarser, more cynical, less energetic. I thought I was meeting a new character, a character whose every thought is paranoid and defensive, who would never had the young Randall’s confidence. What happened is that shortly after Randall’s eighth grade graduation, his father died. The family needed the income that Randall and B.J. would bring in, so they both signed on to work at the mill. There is nothing extraordinary about this, yet the change in Randall shocked me.
From here on out I was aware that this is a novel about – among other things – the power of education. The fourteen year-old Randall Evans who had been praised and validated by his teachers, who publicly prophesied his brilliant future, is barely recognizable in the man trapped in the narrow space formed by his unhappy marriage, his dreary job, and his stultifying community, barely able to move in such a cramped, awkward triangle. I am a little embarrassed about how much I grieved for Randall’s lost vigor and energy and confidence.
Eliot Campbell, who is seven years old when he first appears in Part 2 of the novel, is the one who grows up to be the lawyer Randall once thought he could become. In Part 2, Eliot is a crazed bouncy-ball of enthusiasm, constantly screeching around corners (I’m imagining the sound effects) and peppering us with narration like “I love fish sticks! I love pig’s feet! My teacher like me! She nice!” If Urkel mind-melded with Punky Brewster, the result would resemble my image of young Eliot. A little of this narration goes a long way, but I rarely find a novel in which children are presented realistically, and I was largely impressed by Corthron’s work here.
Much of young Eliot’s attention in Part 2 is devoted to his cat, Parker. Eliot isn’t allowed to keep the cat at home, so he persuades a neighbor who owns many cats to let Parker move in with her. All of Eliot’s affections are extreme, but his love for Parker transcends hyperbole. His older brother, Dwight, is much more restrained, not likely to share his own strong emotions publicly, though when he narrates a chapter we are certainly treated to his thoughts and to his quieter enthusiasms. His friends are Roof and Carl, both white. Roof is from a large poor family; he and Dwight entertain themselves by building sculptures out of all the junk in Roof’s backyard, and when Roof finishes elementary school he immediately begins working in a mine alongside his father. He and Dwight stop playing together because Roof is too exhausted when he comes home to do anything more than eat, bathe, and fall asleep. Carl, on the other hand, is from an educated white liberal family that moves onto the Campbells’ street. They think it’s great that Carl has a black friend, an enthusiasm that is just as well-intended and awkward as you might imagine. Carl and Roof detest each other, and the social acrobatics Dwight performs to maintain both friendships are impressive. The second section of the novel ends abruptly when Carl – inexplicably and intentionally – kills Eliot’s cat, Parker. This incident tears Eliot and Dwight’s relationship in two, and its violence reverberates through the entire novel.
The novel proceeds like this, its lens shifting from one narrator to the next, always microscopically, always entirely in scene, always – at least at first – resisting interpretation. Each chapter in this novel is like a window outside which some kind of human struggle – large or small – is taking place. It is easy to walk past one of these tableaux without really seeing it, especially if you are used to reading modern fiction that spoon-feeds you an interpretation of itself even as its chapters speed by. The scope of the novel is impressive – over its nearly 800 pages we’re treated to courtroom dramas, love stories, and horrific violence. Families fracture, reunite, and fracture again. Even minor characters are remarkably round and compelling. The novel is not perfect, of course: it abandons several plot lines that were worth developing, it asks us to take seriously a character named April May June, and it never really earns its kooky title, which alludes to the misunderstandings that are at the novel’s core but is ultimately a turnoff. It makes the novel seem silly, which it most definitely is not.
I mentioned earlier that I thought Corthron was working with some allusions to Faulkner, and it may be that she was. However, as the novel progressed I thought less of Faulkner and more of Tolstoy. The encyclopedic scope of Corthron’s novel is balanced against the minutiae of individual relationships in a way that resembles Anna Karenina, and the novel’s final tragedy, hidden in plain sight in its earliest pages, suggests a vision similar to Tolstoy’s. I recommend this novel highly, though it’s not for the faint-hearted, and I will certainly be watching for this author’s work in the future.