Friday, January 29, 2016

"A Game of Clue"

In an earlier post on “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser (March 25, 2015), I explored the theme of “all may not be as it seems.”  Appearances can be deceiving.  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” deception is shown to be at the heart, not only of the magician’s art, but of life itself.   

In Millhauser’s “A Game of Clue,” two brothers, their sister, and the older brother’s girlfriend sit around a table playing the famous board game.  What could be more mundane? But, “all may not be as it seems.”  While appearing to be simply playing the game, all four characters are caught up in their own private psychological dramas.  Jacob is angry about his failing career and rocky relationship; Marion is angry at Jacob for being late to the family gathering to celebrate their brother’s birthday and for bringing his girlfriend unannounced; David, turning 15 and preoccupied with sexual fantasies, secretly wants time alone with his big brother; and Susan simply wants to be accepted by Jacob’s family. 

Meanwhile, on the game board, as they move from room to room, the suspects play out their own private dramas.  Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are engaged in a game of seduction; Professor Plum is getting lost in the secret passageways; Mr. Green is paralyzed with social anxiety; Mrs. White is mourning the death of her murdered lover; and Mrs. Peacock, while pretending to console her friend, is harboring a dark secret. 

The murder mystery is popular entertainment, in fiction and film, on stage and television, as well as in puzzles and games.  Perhaps our attraction to this genre is a displacement of our own anxiety about death.  Though there is no real life murder mystery in the lives of the players, the brothers and sister are worried about their father’s health, though they avoid discussing it.  After all “It’s David’s birthday.” It’s fine to play a murder mystery game, but heaven forbid that the shadow of actual death should spoil the occasion.

Similarly, while a murder has occurred just the night before, only Mrs. White seems to have it on her mind.  Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are preoccupied with their own sexual game, just as David cannot stop thinking about women’s bodies as he plays the game of Clue; Professor Plum is lost in his own world of secret passageways, just as Jacob is faraway in his own private world of personal failure; Mr. Green is stuck in a social situation in which he seems unable to act, just as Susan is trying to navigate the social dynamics of Jacob’s unfamiliar family; and Mrs. Peacock is guarding her secret, just as Marion (and the rest) put on their public “game” faces while harboring their secret attractions, resentments, fears, frustrations, jealousies, hostilities, even homicidal thoughts.

Just as the secret passageways are not visible on the game board, so a dark, psychic labyrinth lurks beneath the surface of both the players and the suspects.

The whole story is a multi-layered representation of a Freudian drama in which characters disguise and deny their id-driven pursuits of pleasure and power, their ego-driven rationalizations, and their superego-driven repressions and avoidance.  The surface may appear innocent, but the depths reveal our conflicted, ambiguous, chaotic psychic realities.

At another level, Millhauser inserts periodic descriptions of the bare, physical facts of the room, the table, and the game board, as if to suggest how facts merely scratch the surface of truth. Just as appearances can be mere illusions that hide reality, so observable facts can be irrelevant to hidden truths. 

The story seems to move toward a redemptive conclusion, as the game moves closer to its end, the mystery is about to be solved, and the players join together in a mutual sharing of birthday wishes for David, but in the Freudian world there is no redemption.  The ongoing psychic conflict is never-ending, mysteries persist, and the sense of redemption is just another illusion, perhaps the greatest of all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Makes a Good Potboiler?

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (see blog post March 12, 2015) is still at the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list.  Recently, I saw that some folks got it mixed up with another mystery/thriller published around the same time with a similar title, Girl on a Train by A. J. Waines, which attained bestseller status on the UK and Australia Kindle charts (

Curious, I read the Waines novel for comparison’s sake, and shortly after I read Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, which I had seen on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, but really couldn’t remember very well.

Comparisons among the three got me thinking about what makes a good potboiler.

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

It struck me that all three of these novels raise questions about the power of disinterested logic and rationality as means to truth, and show how observation, intuition and, in the case of both Train novels, irrational passion and even neurosis can serve as means to truth.

As in the typical detective story, Girl on a Train begins with familiar reality, a young woman on a commuter train.  Her seatmate, however, is nervous and agitated enough to draw attention to herself.  Anna tries to work, but is continually distracted by the behavior of her nervous seatmate.  At one point they engage in brief conversation in which the seatmate discovers Anna is a freelance journalist who has done investigative reporting.  No doubt that is why, when she suddenly deboards the train, she gives Anna a desperate look, which the reporter interprets as a plea for help. 

Shortly afterwards, the train unexpectedly halts.  It turns out the young seatmate has presumably committed suicide by stepping in front of the train as it departs the station, and, later, it turns out she has left a clue in Anna’s purse.  ‘The reporter doesn’t believe it’s suicide and sets out to follow a trail of clues to unravel the mystery of her seatmate’s death.

Amazingly, both The Girl on the Train and Girl on a Train feature a character named Anna and use a shifting point of view, among Rachel, Megan and Anna in The Girl on the Train; and between Anna and Elly in Girl on a Train.

As in The Girl on the Train, the “detective” in Girl on a Train (Anna) is a female witness rather than an official detective.  Her experience as a freelance investigative journalist lends her some plausibility as a “detective”; however, as in The Girl on the Train, she seems irrationally driven to solve the mystery and takes some bizarre risks in the process. 

In Dead Man’s Folly, the detective is the renowned Hercule Poirot, who receives a strange call from a friend (who is also a murder mystery novelist) to attend an event at an estate because the novelist believes something is not right, though she can’t put her finger on anything definite.  The familiar Agatha Christie pattern unfolds, as a murder occurs and Poirot must rely on his unusual powers of observation and ability to put seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces together to make sense of what seems to be an impenetrable mystery involving numerous suspects.

Unlike the witnesses in the two Train novels Hercule Poirot is an experienced private detective who is driven more by intellectual curiosity than irrational compulsions. (It is notable that the “irrational” witnesses are women whereas the disinterested detective is a man.) However, Poirot does not follow a strict path of ratiocination.  He relies as much on observation of minute details and intuition as on logic and rationality.

Thus, unlike the formulaic detective story in which irrational disorder is defeated by the power of reason alone, all three of these novels show how less rational, even irrational, processes can lead to truth.

Regardless, a good detective potboiler relies heavily on, first, mystery, suspense, and the sense of an ominous threat in the world; second, a relentless “detective,” who leaves no stone unturned in his or her pursuit of truth; and, third, compelling characters with their own personal dramas.  In The Girl on the Train the female witness is driven by her own personal drama; in Girl on a Train the female reporter is sucked in to the victim’s personal drama; and in Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot himself is compelling in his eccentricity and all the suspects have their own personal dramas, which make them suspicious, and which makes one of them commit murder.

All three of these novels also rely on far-fetched situations, unlikely coincidences (not to mention behaviors), and highly implausible circumstances.   The Girl on the Train and Dead Man’s Folly are well crafted enough to engage the reader in a “suspension of disbelief,” whereas Girl on a Train is clumsily written in places and leaves too many loose ends to keep the reader from frequent eye rolls.  It’s entertaining enough, but doesn’t display the artistry that draws the reader in and makes us believe an unlikely plot.

So, in addition to mystery, suspense, a relentless detective, and compelling characters, a good detective potboiler needs to vary the traditional formula, make us believe the unbelievable, and offer some serious philosophical, psychological, or social issues for us to chew on.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"A Thanksgiving Visitor" and "One Christmas"

Truman Capote published three holiday stories based on his childhood experiences. 

“A Christmas Memory” (see previous post Dec. 2011) appeared in 1956 and is probably the best known.  It is the most nostalgic of the three, recalling his relationship at age seven with an elderly distant cousin, who is “herself a child.”  The two have formed a bond as outsiders in their household.  Buddy, as the older cousin calls him, helps his “friend” gather pecans, make fruitcakes, and prepare Christmas gifts.  Years later, when he receives word of his “friend’s” death, he recalls the kites they made for each other and imagines, “rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

“A Thanksgiving Visitor” was published in 1967 and “One Christmas” in 1982.  Buddy is seven or eight in the second story and six in the third.  These later stories are more complex than the first.  Though there is still some sentimentality surrounding Sook, the elder cousin’s name, as we learn in the second story, they both convey a greater sense of moral complexity, as young “Buddy” experiences more of the dark side of life.

From these two stories we learn that Buddy and Sook had both been taken in by relatives, who are busy running several businesses while Sook stays home, does the cooking and housework, and serves as a surrogate mother to Buddy, whose birth mother, having married young, had divorced the father, and left Buddy with family while she went off to pursue college and career.  In “One Christmas” Buddy makes a brief reference to her suicide by drug overdose in later life.

Having been abandoned by both parents at an early age, Buddy has already seen the dark side, but he is happy in his adopted family and especially in his relationship with Sook.  Both of these two later stories can be viewed as initiation narratives, as the young, innocent Buddy encounters the cruelty and selfishness in the world, including in himself.

In “One Christmas” it is questionable whether he recognizes the darkness in his own heart, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” he learns a painful lesson in the cruelty that he is capable of.

Though it was published last “One Christmas” takes place earliest in Buddy’s life.  He is unexpectedly invited to travel alone 400 miles from his home in rural Alabama to spend Christmas with his father in New Orleans.  Buddy barely remembers his father and is terrified of leaving his comfortable home with Sook to spend Christmas in a strange city with a strange man.

He makes the journey, though, and discovers first-hand his father’s somewhat profligate urban lifestyle of big-spending, partying, and pursuing older rich women, who subsidize him.  It is on this trip that Buddy also learns that there really is no Santa Claus, but he plays innocent and manipulates his father into buying him an expensive airplane with pedals.  Thus is Buddy not only initiated into his father’s profligacy but into his own ability to deceive and manipulate others for his own selfish ends. 

It’s unclear how aware the child Buddy is of his own capacity for taking advantage of others, but the adult Buddy, who is narrating the story, clearly presents the episode as a kind of fall from childhood innocence.

The story also suggests a kind of reversal of the prodigal son parable, as before leaving Buddy at the train station, his prodigal father begs his six-year-old son to kiss him and declare his love before returning home. 
Later, Sook reassures Buddy: “Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do.  So the Lord has spread the task among us all.  That’s why everybody is Santa Claus.”

If Santa Claus is no longer quite the same, though, Buddy’s belief in God remains intact, and he imagines “the voice of the Lord telling me something I must do.”  He sends his father a postcard, in which he writes, “…I am lurning to pedal my plan so fast I will soon be in the sky so keep your eyes open and yes I love you Buddy.”

Is this our reassurance that, while Buddy may have lost his innocence at one level, he is able to reclaim it at another?  Or is Buddy deceiving himself about the state of his own heart?

One wonders too if, like that other son, Icarus, Buddy might be in danger of flying too close to the sun.

In “A Thanksgiving Visitor” a slightly older Buddy suffers the daily torments of an older bully in school, a boy named Odd Henderson, “the meanest human creature in my experience.”  Buddy confides in Sook the cruelties he is subjected to, but Sook, a developmentally challenged adult, refuses to believe anyone could be that evil.  She knows the large Henderson family and their struggles in rural Alabama during the Depression with a father in prison.  She decides to invite Odd to join their family for Thanksgiving. 

Buddy is mortified, treats Odd rudely when he arrives, and takes an opportunity for revenge.  While hiding upstairs he observes Odd steal Sook’s cameo from the bathroom.  As the family gathers for dinner, Buddy loudly and publically accuses Odd of he theft.  Sook immediately goes upstairs to check and returns to cover for Odd, stating that the cameo is safely in place.  Buddy is shocked, but even more so when Odd stands up, confesses the crime, returns the cameo, and excuses himself, thereby shaming Buddy, who had hoped to shame Odd.

Feeling that Sook has forsaken him, Buddy retreats outside to the smokehouse, where he fantasizes about hopping a train or committing suicide.  Later Sook consoles him, but imparts a hard lesson: “Two wrongs never make a right.  It was wrong of him to take the cameo…(but) what you did was much worse: you planned to humiliate him.  It was deliberate…. there is only one unpardonable sin—deliberate cruelty.”

As a six-year-old in “One Christmas,” Buddy may not have the self-awareness to recognize his own culpability in manipulating his father, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” at seven or eight, he is forced to confront his own capacity for cruelty.

What Buddy is not aware of but Sook had discovered when talking to Odd’s mother is that, however cruel Odd may be at school, he is a great help and comfort to his mother at home.

Years later, just before Odd joins the Merchant Marines and Buddy is sent off to a military academy, Odd happens by the house and stops to help Sook and Buddy lift a heavy washtub of blossoming chrysanthemums up the steps onto the porch.  Odd ignores Buddy but is polite to Sook, who hands him a bouquet of flowers to take to his mother.  She calls to him as he walks away, “…be careful! They’re lions, you know.”  Odd would not have understood, but Buddy would recall how Sook often compared chrysanthemums to lions: “I always expect them to spring. To turn on me and roar.” Somewhat as Odd had sprung on Buddy in school, and Buddy, in turn, had sprung on Odd at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

This image of the dual-natured chrysanthemums, both beautiful and menacing, embodies the duality of human nature, capable as it is of both charity and cruelty.

Both stories function as quasi-confessionals from the adult narrator, looking back on his innocent and not-so-innocent childhood self.  Both portray the moral complexity of human nature.  Both testify to the wisdom and compassion of a developmentally challenged adult, whose own moral character surpasses that of a precocious child.

Both “A Christmas Memory” and “One Christmas” use the image of flying, two kites “hurrying toward heaven” and a toy plane in which Buddy imagines himself lifting into the sky.  These images convey a sense of transcendence over the darkness of death and human failure, just as, at the time of the Winter Solstice, we look forward to the return of the light at the darkest time of year.

Friday, November 6, 2015


I had panned Michelle Huneven's 2014 novel Off Course as “Loser Lit” (see Aug. 19, 2015, post), but Blame (2009) deserves to have been nominated for the National Book Critic’s Award, not only for its thought-provoking variation on a literary convention, but also for its unusual structure and noteworthy style.

One of her friends refers to Patsy's story as a cautionary tale or recovery narrative. I don't really equate the two, however. A cautionary tale usually ends in disaster, thus underscoring the story's warning against certain behaviors. A recovery narrative, on the other hand, typically ends positively after the protagonist has overcome illness, bad fortune, or poor choices. And usually the recovery is self-directed, testifying to the protagonist's strong character.

Blame is a recovery narrative with a twist, in that the poor choices and bad fortune turn out to be not quite what Patsy thought she was recovering from.  The title could just as well have been Guilt, since the novel mostly focuses on Patsy's efforts to make amends and redeem herself from a terrible mistake resulting in the death of two people. In the end she discovers she is less guilty than originally thought.

The most interesting question in this situation is what you would do if you suddenly discovered the assumption you had based your life on was false.  Would you second-guess every decision you had made? Would the false assumption negate the validity of the life you built based on it? Would it undercut your very authenticity?  Pasty doesn't take it that far, but she does make some changes as the truth of the past reveals some truths in the present.

Unlike the typical recovery narrative, this one leaves us, not with the sense of redemption so much as a sense of uncertainty, uncertainty about our responsibility for the past, our self-knowledge in the present, and our prospects for the future.

I say "our" because we all base our life choices on certain assumptions, which may or may not be true; we've all had the experience of suddenly "seeing the light" as the truth is revealed to us, of suddenly realizing what we thought was true was false all along, or conversely that what we thought was false was in fact true.  And we all know what it's like to have to question our lives, our expectations, and ourselves.  Just when we think we've got our act together, something unexpected throws us off balance. Real lives just don't easily fit the neat formulas of literary convention.

The first chapter of Blame is narrated from the point of view of a minor character, who introduces us to Patsy and later becomes the means by which Patsy learns the truth that has been withheld from her. The rest of the novel is recounted from Patsy's point of view. I found this shift awkward and puzzling, but it does provide some foreshadowing and a glimpse of the main character from another perspective.

Michelle Huneven is a good writer.  Her style is not particularly distinctive, but it’s not pedestrian either.  On almost every page there a striking image or turn of phrase that makes the reading experience worthwhile, even when you’re not terribly keen on the character or plot.

But what is most noteworthy about the novel is its haunting question: What if the assumption you had based your life on turned out to be false?  As one character says, “It does kind of set you up for a major life review.”

In Patsy’s case it leads to a newfound freedom in the present, uncertainty about the future, and lots of ambiguity about the past.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Quaker Cafe

Summer seems to be a good time for reading B novels. I mentioned Off Course as an example of "Loser Lit" in the previous post (English Lit Newly Lit). Quaker Cafe by Brenda Bevan Remmes is a less painful read, at least in terms of content. Off Course is stylistically superior, but Quaker Cafe is definitely more fun to read.

For one thing, there are lots of hilariously entertaining scenes involving family and social dynamics in a small Southern town, which was founded by Quakers, but is now dominated by mainstream Christian denominations, both black and white.  The white population is largely conservative; the few liberals in town stick together and represent both Quakers and Methodists.  The differences make for good humor, but the core of the story is very serious, involving family secrets, racial injustice, and a community with deep divisions.

Liz Hoole is from St. Paul, MN, but married a Quaker and has lived for decades in her husband's North Carolina hometown.  Husband Chase runs the family pharmacy, and Liz works for the Red Cross, where she discovers some medical information about a friend, which she must keep confidential.

Without revealing too much, let's just say Liz gets tangled up in her friend, Maggie’s, medical situation, which has implications, not only for Maggie, but also for Liz’s family and the whole community. As history that has been covered up for years gradually unravels, Liz struggles to help Maggie, support her own family, and maintain her professional confidentiality.

The truth opens up old wounds of racial injustice, threatens the fabric of relationships, and calls for confession and penance.  At this point we see a process of restorative justice work its way through families, churches, and community, a process based in Quaker and African American church traditions, as well as shared human experience.

What makes it a B novel? Well, there is nothing really noteworthy about the style, the plot, or the characters, not that there's anything terribly bad about them either. The dialogue sounded a bit artificial to me in places, though occasionally, having grown up in the South, I thought I heard a Southern style and cadence that sounded very authentic. A structural masterstroke is telling the story from the point of view of a quasi-outsider. Though Liz has lived in the South for many years, she's not a native and is more removed from the town's history than the other characters. As such, she invites the non-Southerner into the narrative and provides a more distanced, balanced perspective. So, a good novel, not a great one, but a good one.

Even a B novel, though, can verge on greatness. Read at face value, it doesn't rise to that level, but if one takes a slight imaginative leap and reads it allegorically, it takes on measurably more significance. 

What if we read it as, not merely the redemptive narrative of one individual and one community, but as a kind of call for restorative justice in the whole South? Of course, the racial injustice in the history of the South is no secret, but we have only to reflect on the recent defense of the Confederate flag as a symbol of "heritage" and "regional pride" to consider the depth of Southern denial about its own history.  Could the individual story of injustice and redemption in Quaker Cafe represent a call for regional assumption of historical responsibility, confession, and atonement?  Does the model of restorative justice represented in the novel offer the vision for a path by which the stark divisions of the American South might be healed?

Perhaps that is a stretch, but surely no more so than acknowledging the human universality of the redemptive story and the shared human yearning for healing and wholeness.

We should also acknowledge that at the end of Quaker Cafe, not all are redeemed; the dead are still dead, and they died without learning the truth.  Not all justice can be restored, but the novel holds out hope for the human capacity of accepting responsibility, making amends, and achieving some measure of peace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

English Lit Newly Lit

Academic irreverence is nothing new. When I was a college student, we had a study guide called English Lit Relit. As the traditional curriculum evolved and the canon expanded to become more inclusive, courses were developed in Women's Lit, Black or African American Lit, Native American Lit, Latino/Latina or Hispanic or Chicano Lit, even Working Class Lit. I personally used a sabbatical to develop an LGBT Lit course, which I taught several times before retiring.

One of my colleagues, who was not too keen on all the new "Lits," had been in a wheelchair since he was twelve years old as a result of childhood polio. He once sarcastically offered to develop a “Crip Lit” course to include disabilities in the curriculum.

Such are the stresses and strains when social change meets academia.

As a teacher of early American literature, I found it useful to classify texts by such genres as personal narrative, success story, sentimental romance, gothic tale, mock romance, coming-of-age story, frontier adventure, moral journey, cautionary tale, etc. While it sounds formulaic, it provided a way for students to see how writers can achieve tremendous variety while satisfying certain cultural expectations in their readers, not to mention enrich their texts by tacitly referencing a whole range of other texts.

Recently, I've come across a couple of new, irreverent genres in popular culture. The memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert inspired an essay on “Priv Lit,” the kind of self-indulgent literature produced by those who can afford to finance travels, adventures, experiences, or pilgrimages that provide fodder for their writing. (See  I can imagine the academic argument for expanding the curriculum to include Priv Lit. Just as mediocre office-holders were once defended because "even the mediocre deserve representation," so it might be argued that even the shallow and immature deserve inclusion, especially if they can afford to finance their exploits.

The redemptive narrative is the quintessential American story. We prefer the happy ending, no matter how unrealistic or unrepresentative, to a tragedy, no matter how probable or typical. We'd rather read the rare American Dream story than the more common narrative of failure, disappointment, or resignation.

One example is the recovery narrative, in which the protagonist suffers from illness, or victimization, or destructive behavior, but eventually recovers, escapes, or reforms, and achieves a healthy, productive life. 

Usually there is a degree of balance between the suffering and the recovery. Most recently I read a novel of this type, in which the bulk of the narrative is devoted to a long, drawn-out account of obsessive, destructive behavior. Off Course by Michelle Huneven lives up to its title by narrating in tiresome detail the mistakes, missteps, and misjudgment of a character who most definitely should know better. The recovery occurs in the final chapters with little explanation or motivation.

Why did I bother to finish it? Well, I was curious to see how it would turn out, but I ended up shaking my head in disappointment. Curious, I went online to see if anyone liked it. Surprisingly (to me), there were a lot of positive reader reviews. Among them I found a new literary term, "Loser Lit." And a lot of readers obviously either identified with or sympathized with the main character, whereas I had been rolling my eyes and shaking my head at her from the first chapter.

Of the various definitions for “loser” in the urban dictionary, the one that seems to fit best here is “Someone who generally sucks at life."  I guess this is the genre for the inept and misguided, who may or may not recover. No doubt, even they deserve to be represented and included in the curriculum. 

Such are the stresses and strains when popular culture meets academia.

Lest anyone think I’m mocking the expansion of the literary canon, let me assure you that I have always been a supporter and practitioner of curriculum transformation, including the study of “popular,” as opposed to “classical,” literature. 

Whether it be “Crip Lit,” “Priv Lit,” or “Loser Lit,” they all give English Lit Relit a whole new meaning.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Whether you’ve read this recently published “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, you’ve no doubt already read about the “ugly.”  Yes, Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s, is exposed as a segregationist and a racist in the 1950s.  Some have deplored and mourned this toppling of the white Southern hero; others have defended Go Set a Watchman’s representation of white supremacy in the Civil Rights era South as much more realistic than its well known, popular predecessor.

In either case, the novel, actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, offers a historical explanation for the difference in character.  It seems that in the segregated South of the 1930s it was perfectly possible for a white man to be on reasonably good terms with his black servants (young Scout was raised by a black maid, as well as her single father, after her mother’s early death) and other African Americans, since in those days “Negroes” knew their place and mostly stayed in it.

With the rise of the NAACP and the Civil Rights movement, however, white paternalists such as Atticus Finch were threatened enough to assert their racial “superiority” and resist all efforts to achieve integration and equal rights of the races.

This ugliness, however realistic, is countered by the outrage of 26-year-old Jean Louise (Scout), when she discovers a racist pamphlet in her father’s desk and witnesses his attendance at a Citizens’ Council meeting, which is hosting a virulently racist speaker.  Jean Louise’s horror when she discovers her father’s racism, her willingness to confront him, as well as her boyfriend (who also attended the meeting), and her support for Civil Rights could be considered the “good” that somehow redeems the novel’s ugliness.  At least that is one way to read it.

There is another example of ugliness, however, at the end of the novel that goes unredeemed, and another way to read the novel as a whole that may disappoint those wishing to somehow salvage Harper Lee’s reputation.  More of that later.

What about the “good”?  For all the talk about race, no reviewers I’ve read have mentioned the feminist plot of Jean Louise rebelling, not only against the small-minded racism of her hometown and her family, but also against the traditional small town expectations for how women should dress, speak, and act.

Go Set a Watchman takes the form of a coming of age narrative in which the protagonist is a woman, who, after graduating from college, has left the South and moved to New York City.  She returns for a family visit some time after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, which ruled segregation unconstitutional.  She wears slacks instead of dresses, talks back to her aunt, and resists attempts by her father’s law clerk to get her to marry him and settle down into a small town, Southern, domestic role.

As is typical in a coming of age story, Jean Louise encounters “evil” in the form of the racist pamphlet and speaker that her father and boyfriend seem to be supporting.  As in such stories Jean Louise’s shock and outrage at the evil in the world can lead her to cynicism and despair or into some kind of healthy maturation, in which she comes to terms with and makes her peace with the world as it is without sacrificing her own values and principles.

Although Jean Louise, having strung her boyfriend along, finally and firmly rejects his offer of marriage, she does make peace with her father.  It is not clear whether she will return to New York or stay in Maycomb and make her peace with the small town provincialism that she despises.

Her Uncle Jack encourages her to stay, not to “join em,” probably not to “beat em,” but possibly to improve them with her more enlightened point of view.  Paraphrasing “Melbourne” (presumably Queen Victoria’s prime minister), Uncle Jack says, “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

Uncle Jack emerges as the wise, if somewhat addled, sage, advising Jean Louise, “…it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days.”  Perhaps it is the same kind of maturity that enables us all to put up with the racist uncle who always seems to show up for Thanksgiving.

In any case, it is no doubt healthier for Jean Louise to come to some semblance of peaceful terms with her family and community, even if she doesn’t stay there, than to become isolated and estranged from them.

Scattered through this coming of age narrative are three flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, episodes that reinforce the youthful innocence from which she must “fall,” as in all coming of age stories.  These flashbacks, taken by themselves, are hilariously entertaining, though not necessarily well integrated with the narrative as a whole.  Reading them, one can understand why her editor suggested she rewrite the manuscript from Scout’s point of view as a young child.

So much for the “good.”

The “bad” is simply the rough draft quality of the text, structurally, as suggested above, as well as in content and language.  For one thing, 26 seems a bit old to be discovering that her father is not the paragon of virtue she had thought him as a child.  Most of us experience this disillusionment with, not only our parents, but also our family and community, during our late teens or early twenties.  It doesn’t seem very credible that Jean Louise doesn’t discover her father’s racism, even if it was more paternalistic than aggressive, at an earlier age.

When she does confront her boyfriend and father, she is far more virulent than one might expect.  Having just heard the Sunday preacher speak from the text of Isaiah 21: 6 (“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth”), Jean Louise melodramatically declares that she needed someone to “set a watchman” to warn of her of the bigotry lying in hiding beneath the moralistic façade of her father, family, and community.  Having grown up in the South, surely she can’t be that shocked to find Southern racism and even the KKK lapping at her own door.

The structure of the narrative is also flawed.  The plot doesn’t really begin to thicken until half way through, when Jean Louise discovers that pamphlet, and, as suggested above the flashbacks are not well integrated.  Much of the second half is taken up with long inner and outer monologues and diatribes, as Jean Louise confronts herself and others.  Uncle Jack, a Faulkneresque eccentric, tops all with his meandering, barely coherent, orations.

It is Uncle Jack that calls Jean Louise “Childe Roland,” quoting parts of Robert Browning’s poem, lifting Jean Louise’s coming of age to the mythic level of a hero’s quest narrative.

But it is also Uncle Jack who, shockingly, slaps Jean Louise near the end, drawing blood and then plying her with whisky to ease the pain.  The ugly racism in the book is countered by Jean Louise’s outrage, but this ugly act of violence is presented uncritically.  It is presented as literally slapping some sense into an irate Jean Louise, and, more shockingly, she accepts it.  The only thing lacking is her actually saying, “Thanks, I needed that.”

After this act of violence Jean Louise suddenly calms down, accepts her uncle’s advice to make peace, apologizes to her father, and seems to resign herself to the moral imperfection of her family, community, and the world in general.

This resolution is consistent with the coming of age story, but another, uglier, way to read the ending is as Harper Lee’s apologist treatment of Southern racism.  Atticus attended a KKK meeting, not to participate, but to see who was under those hoods.  He attended the Citizen’s Council meeting and listened to the racist speaker in order to maintain working relationships with his fellow citizens.  He had the pamphlet in his desk in order to study the rhetoric and reasoning of the segregationists.  He holds racist opinions, but is still a kind and forgiving father.  Hank, as an up-and-coming lawyer who started out as “trash,” cannot risk his upward social mobility by bucking the powers that be.

Is this realism or is it apologism?  You decide.

In any case, Go Set a Watchman is not of the same caliber as To Kill a Mockingbird.  While there’s some “good,” there’s more “bad,” and a lot more “ugly” than in the well-known classic.