A note from Alec Clayton: Jack Butler is one of the great Southern writers. His poetry, short stories and reviews have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Mississippi Review, New Orleans Review and elsewhere. His novel Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His other novels include Jujitsu for Christ, Nightshade, Dreamer, the poetry collections: West of Hollywood: Poems from a Hermitage and The Kid Who Wanted to be a Spaceman, and the short story collection Hawk Gumbo. I am deeply grateful for his “review ad preview” of my novels Tupelo and Locke In.
ALEC CLAYTON: A REVIEW AND A PREVIEW
by Jack Butler
What follows is primarily a brief review of two of Alec Clayton’s novels, Tupelo (2016) and Locked In (forthcoming). But before I get into the reviews I want to try to explain exactly what it is about his novels that I have gradually come to admire so very deeply.
I’ll begin with a little whatchamacallit, a “thought experiment,” so to speak. It’s for anyone who has read any of the novels.
Take Tupelo, for example. The experiment is very simple. It consists of a single question: Who’s the main character?
I find that a hard question to answer for any of the novels. Oh, I have no trouble distinguishing the “viewpoint” character in any given passage. But such is Clayton’s way with human longing that it is almost impossible to single out a single character as the most important.
I think this happens because of the radically different way the author treats (and treats of) his characters.
In Clayton’s writing, people emerge as, well, people. People in all their hopes, the nobler promptings of their consciences, their fears, their failings. The arc of his novels is not toward “solutions” or “resolutions” (which are really only solutions offered in the guise or larger explanation, the “meanings” of the lives we have just followed.
It may be easier to see in Clayton’s short stories, but none of his fictions end in any typical manner. Their endings tend to come as surprises. Sometimes they seem almost anticlimactic, deflating. Sometimes they just end.
A friend of mine said to me once, a long time ago, movies aren’t like life; they have endings. Replace the word “movies” with the words “prose fictions,” and you begin to see what I’m getting at.
In Alec Clayton’s fictions, we discover something about as close to life itself as we are ever going to find between the covers of a book. What this author is being true to is not the tropes of fiction—very useful and developed painfully over many centuries—but the very way that human life itself moves.
And life has a tendency, as noted, to keep on going. Not to be resolved, gathered into reassuring chords and harmonized, but simply to live. And that’s what Clayton’s characters do. They live.
Reading a book by Alec Clayton is very much like being actually inside the minds he narrates. His people reveal themselves completely, with no guile whatsoever. They do not cover up their worst behaviors and impulses. Neither do they confess. They do not justify and explain. They simply live, and we get to watch them live, as if, by some miracle, we were given the eyes of God himself (or her- or itself, however you want to put it). We see, with no dissembling, no urgency of forced morality (though the characters themselves have moralities, and do their best to live up to them, and often fail, as anyone who attempts to live up to any morality must fail).
This is not simple-minded relativism, the claim that there are no standards at all. It’s plain that Clayton himself has clear notions of right and wrong, of the ways people should treat each other, and the ways they fail to treat each other. There are unquestionable villains in his work, both bloviating politicians and business-people, and nasty pieces of work who deserve, and get, appropriate mockery. But even the villains are completely human.
People, in Clayton’s fiction, behave exactly as we know people actually behave, in all their quiddity and never completely explicable complexity. In his fiction, people are truly people.
I cannot help feeling that is a very important achievement.
And now for the reviews themselves.
I’ve recently read Alec Clayton’s new novel, Tupelo, and as much as I have enjoyed his other novels, I have to say this one may be his best. Perhaps it is the consistent through-line, the tight plot provided by his focus on the twins, Kevin and Evan, and their differing lives and behaviors: One grows gradually into the bigotry so prevalent around the good twin (I’m not telling); the other becomes that dreaded southern phenomenon, a liberal. One eventually commits what amounts to murder, though he is never tried for it, or even blamed for it. (I won’t tell you which in either case.)
The book is a long look at the mores of a Southern town, in this case, Tupelo, in northern Mississippi, where the racism was even worse. It was, and is, bad everywhere in Mississippi, but it was even more virulent in the northern parts of the state.
In saying so, I do not mean to imply this is an angry novel about racism. No. It isn’t. Clayton, as always, handles his characters with a gentle though absolutely truthful touch. Kevin, or Evan, whichever one turned out decent (again, I’m not telling), gets his decency from their parents, Driver and Punkin, as they call each other and everybody calls them, for reasons lost in their history. Clayton, as ever, is wonderful at getting at the development and mores of all of his characters, not just the “good” ones. A sizable portion of his accomplishment is the fidelity and detail with which he records the past, makes it perfectly real and present. Driver and Punkin (the names alone are winners) are not moralists or activists. They are, simply decent people, with a decency which Will not descend to racism, but is able at the same time, because of that very decency, to get along well with the generally more bigoted neighbors.
A book this good would not be lacking a good villain, and Clayton provides one, son of the local mean bastard and general no-good. He rises from a contorted childhood to become District Attorney, but his greatest evil has yet to occur. He loves to terrorize the twins—or rather to attempt to terrorize them. Kevin and Evan are small but fiery, and Will buckle the knee to no one. This villain deserves a comeuppance, and he gets one, a well-deserved one, and one that proceeds from his own evil choices, finally.
Oh, and for fans of Travis “Red” Warner—you’ve seen him die, but an extra bonus of this warm and wonderful novel is that you get to see him live again, as a child in Tupelo, and you get to see the sorts of things about him you would love to know.
In some ways this is an odd essay—a preview, not a review of a book that has not been published yet, but is forthcoming. Perhaps it would be best considered as a preparatory guide to how to read the novel.
The choice of narrator is perfect, in many ways. Willie Ray, whose cardiovascular health has been failing for some time, has had a stroke. He can no longer speak, or even move. He requires constant care. Eventually he and his wife of many years, Ella, develop a means of communication, a means which is perhaps familiar to many readers. They communicate by means of eye-blinks at first and over time develop it into a more complex system. For those who are looking for a happy ending, I must tell you that Willie Ray dies before the end of the book, unable to ask for the forgiveness he longs for, but completely able to face the effects and results of his own weaknesses, and the story is completed by his long-suffering and beloved, and loving wife, Ella.
Willie Ray is locked in more than the medical sense: He’s locked in to his own life, his own growth, his own choices, his own mistakes. He can’t do a damn thing about them but face the truth. Perhaps that is as much of a happy ending as any of us might have, and more of one that most of us have.
Fortunately for him, the truth is he was well and truly loved.
In many ways, his condition mimics the condition of the South, especially Mississippi, as I see it. Mississippi, the worst parts of it anyway, has spent decades denying its past, refusing to acknowledge the deep evil that has perverted any good or salvation that might have been possible, and that has haunted the children of the South for all of their lives. Mississippi—and it is, of course, not the only state in this condition, refuses to be honest with itself about its own past. There is a great deal of talk and celebration of the “tradition,” the sense of values, but there is no straightforward talk about the past.
(Oh yes, the literature of the South talks about that past, but in talking about it manages to avoid any real confrontation with the true horrors of that past. We admit them but slide quickly over them and fall to praising that seductive “tradition.” as if there could be honor without honesty, without penance and true remorse. Mississippi refuses to acknowledge the past, but that past happened. That past happened, and it destroyed lives, and it is still destroying lives. Mississippi refuses to acknowledge its past, and now Mississippi is paying the price for that refusal. It can no more escape the results of its sins and lies than Willie Ray Rivers can escape his.
There’s something I tremendously admire about the state to me, too, I must admit. The quiet courage of the people who stayed, who stayed and stood up for what counted. In terms of the novel, they are people like Randal Muggles, and all the blacks in Palmer’s Crossing. They have, like Dilsey, endured, and finally the south is changing around them. (But when will we realize that praising that endurance does not redeem that evil?) I do hope the citizens of Mississippi get the benefit of that change. But now the whole country is threatened by the evil the South nurtured for so long, and I don’t know if any of us will make it.
I love Willie Ray Rivers’s voice. Clayton pulls off the same brilliant trick he has manage in all of his novels (the word “trick” is, truth to tell, not really accurate. This is far greater than a knack, or a mere trick. It’s my inability to think of a better word that is to fault here, not Clayton’s writing.)
Instead of railing about the evil, the author speaks from the voice of a normal, but sane and basically decent observer. Willie Ray is a man who can learn, and he learns from Dream, from his first sight of the picture of The Blessed Ludivico, to his notions of the divine—I was especially struck by his dismissal of the whole creaking apparatus of the theology his crazy momma taught him, to the point that he even doubts the existence of God. It’s clear, however—in fact, he declares it outright—that even as he doubts, he wants even more strongly to experience the divine, which he sees, as Dream does, as a kind of spiritual ecstasy.
This narrator can give us the portrait of the idiocies of that era in simple tossed-aside details, like the shopkeeper who lost his shit and canceled his ad because there was a microscopic nude in the Walter Anderson reproduction in The Tattler (a local journal which has been central to the lives of Willie Ray and Ella and many of the other characters, and which is also central to the history of the town). This narrator has the wit to toss aside little observations like “transparency was not a high priority with the city government.”
(Ella, who is the true hero of the novel, at least for me, has her wit, too, as when she describes Bubba as being “not so bad for a racist bully with oatmeal for brains.)
I love the way painting works its way into this book, as it does in all of Clayton’s novels, no doubt because he is himself a deeply talented painter, one who loves the art as a calling, not a mere vehicle for ambition.
(Again, for those who like happy endings, the novel allows what seems to me a very good fate to Ella in her epilogue: She is beginning to show in local galleries around San Francisco, and even selling her work.)
There is the acerbic comment that if you want a good cure for violent headaches, you might try what worked for Willie Ray—total paralysis and being mute. There is the heartbreaking observation, brought to mind by the death of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that who knew that simple bodily functions like pissing could kill you?
Or that the city council didn’t care about selling ads to their enemy at The Tattler because it was a cheap ad in a cheap journal and it satisfied the legal requirements and anyway nobody read the paper.
Or the poignant detail of how the hopeless art gallery in Hub City had once been an ice house, which arrives wrapped in Willie Ray’s memory of the big blocks of ice traveling along a conveyor belt.
Incidentally, my childhood WAS the stuff Willie Ray sees in Palmer’s crossing (the local, and historical, black village). When I was a boy, people still had hand-pumps in the front yard, and outhouses instead of indoor plumbing. I knew, and often visited in homes which had no electricity, though since my extended family (my immediate family was broke and dirt-poor) had money, I never lived in such a house myself. But I saw plenty of them, and it was no big deal. I was born in the year the first commercially-functional mechanical cotton-picker was created, and have myself picked cotton by hand into a long sack.
So I feel justified in declaring that the novel does justice to the “tradition,” the deep history of the place, while making clear how its evils survive and warp the lives and efforts of all of the characters, not just the lives of the blacks.
I loved the mention of Ella’s painting—what witty titles she is allowed to think up—on the wall over the bath: “Dog Gone.”
I almost wept at the truth, available only to the totally paralyzed, who were forced to communicate solely by means of blinking, of how seldom married couples looked into each other’s eyes.
And I swear to God, the cartoon crow on the front of the Yardbird’s store (in Palmer’s Crossing), Flossy, is a straight rip-off of Hekyll and Jekyll. God, I used to love those comics. Racist, I guess, they would seem now, but all I knew was how irreverent those two smart-ass crows were. Did you ever see any Hekyll and Jekyll comics? At any rate, the detail is yet one more utterly convincing little touch in a wonderful book.
Nor is it merely a question of racial hopes and dreams. An ambitious reporter, a fellow who secretly contributed to The Tattler because his own paper wouldn’t cover the outrageous racism, and who planned to make the exposure of Bubba’s involvement in the fire at Yardbirds and also the racist fire many years earlier at the black church and his plan to get rich over the secret coming bypass, he comments that that guy never got to have his big scoop.
In short, this is a hell of a good novel with a hell of a good narrator. Sentimentalist that I am in spite of my angry partisanship, I was glad that Ella had a good last two-thirds of her life, had the good sense to see she needed to have her own life and not live with her kids, and I was glad that Bubba (the major villain) drowns. A cracking good story, and the sort of fiction that will do more, if it is ever paid the attention it deserves, to rescue the South than any of the more-hyped (and perhaps more outraged, in a PC sense) novels now coming out.
I beg you, Southerner to Southerner, not to miss it.