When Great Reads Become Friends
by Erin Donohue; East Thetford, Vermont
Alec Clayton’s latest novel, Locked In, felt just like making a new friend. The ‘voice’ of the narrator/character, Willie Ray, kept me excellent company every day I picked the book up to continue where I left off. Having grown up in Berkeley during the 60s, the issues Willie Ray cares about were near and dear to my own heart. I cared about him as he moved through relationships, both casual and serious; I cared about him when he was thrown into jail and met a best friend, Dream, who I also grew to love; I cared about his partnership with Ella, an incredible and talented woman who never forgets what is important; I cared about him as he protested in the streets; and as he interviewed people for his next newspaper article. Willie Ray’s voice is casual but deep at the same time, humble and unforced. Alec didn’t write this character with a heavy hand, and there is not a note of inauthenticity in the whole book. I didn’t want to rush to the end. I wanted to enjoy the even prose, beautifully written, until the last page.
Master of Prose
Reading Alec Clayton’s new novel, Locked In, is like taking a ride with a good friend through the roads of the Mississippi Delta talking about the places, the events, the culture. Sit back in those big comfortable seats of that old, big-finned car, and roll down the windows to feel the warm country breeze. A Mississippi native, Alec Clayton has Mississippi mud in his veins and in his bones. His identification with the place is so deep it is actually enviable. And if you were born sometime not long after the end of World War II, you will recognize a myriad of important references to music, politics, and people who were part of huge transformational changes in American culture.
I have read a number of Alec Clayton’s previous novels; they are all good, enjoyable, worth reading, well written. At this point, however, I think the author has become a true master of prose. His sentences flow with palpable rhythm infused with the beat of the deep south. They are complete, natural, and unpretentious. When you are a master of your craft you don’t need to show off. Despite some natural conflicts and conundrums appearing in the story (I related to the struggle for fidelity in marriage) the novel does not revolve around those things.
I studied Hindu drama as a college student years ago and was struck by a play titled Shakuntala, by the author Kalidasa. It is famous, but the paper I wrote about it focused on the fact that it was not based on conflict, like all western stories are, but on the peaceful resolution of things, all the loose ends gathered together in beauty. It was Alec Clayton’s masterful story that made me think of it.
by Martha Wilcox
I thought it was sad and interesting about a man trapped in his body. Being able to see and hear family around him. I enjoyed it.
Instead of Railing Against the Evils, the Author Speaks from the Voice of a Normal, but Sane and Basically Decent Observer
by Jack Butler
The choice of narrator is perfect. Willie Ray, whose cardiovascular health has been failing for some time, has had a stroke. He can no longer speak, or even move, and requires constant care. He and his wife of many years, Ella, communicate by means of yes-and-no eye-blinks at first, over time developing it into a more complex system.
Willie Ray dies before the end of the book, unable to ask for the forgiveness he longs for, but, more importantly, completely able to face the effects and results of his own weaknesses. His story is completed by his long-suffering and beloved, and loving wife, Ella.
Even before the stroke, Willie Ray has been locked in more than a medical sense: locked in to his own life, his own growth, his own choices, his own mistakes. Now, completely paralyzed, he can’t do a damn thing about them but face the truth.
But he recognizes that he has been well and truly loved, accepted in spite of his weaknesses and flaws. Perhaps that is as much of a happy ending as any of us might have, and more of one than most either get or deserve.
With regard to the larger implications of the novel, it’s fair to say that his condition mimics the condition of the South, especially the Mississippi in which his story is set. 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 bloviation about the “tradition,” a 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 very past. They are admitted, but we slide quickly over the horror of our defense of slavery and fall to praising the seductions of that supposed “tradition.” as if there could be honor without honesty, without penance and true remorse. Mississippi refuses to honestly acknowledge its past, but that past happened. It destroyed lives, and it is still destroying lives.
Mississippi can no more escape the results of its sins and lies than Willie Ray Rivers can escape the mistakes of his own past.
There’s something about the state I tremendously admire, I must admit. I admire the quiet courage of those, black and white, who stayed, and stood up for what counted. In this novel, such people are represented by Randal Muggles, and by all the blacks in Palmer’s Crossing. They have, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, endured, and finally the south is changing around them. But when will we realize that praising that endurance does not redeem the evil?) I do hope the citizens of Mississippi get the benefit of the coming change, but now the whole country is threatened by an evil the South nurtured for so long, and it is hard to feel that any of us will make it.
I love Willie Ray Rivers’s voice. (Think of the difficulties in creating the “voice” of someone who has no actual physical voice.)
Clayton pulls off the same brilliant maneuver he has managed in all of his novels: Instead of railing against the evils, 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 Hub City). This narrator has the wit to appear to merely toss in little asides like “transparency was not a high priority with the city government.” (Ella, who is the true hero of the novel, has her wit, too, as when she describes Bubba as being “not so bad for a racist bully with oatmeal for brains.)
The book, like all of Clayton’s works, is full of small but vivid happenstance, the details of the lives of people who might as well be real.
Painting works its way into this book, no doubt because Clayton himself is a deeply talented painter, one who loves the art as a calling, not as a mere vehicle for ambition.
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 muteness. 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.
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. It’s entirely justified to say 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.
The cartoon crow on the front of the Yardbird’s store (in Palmer’s Crossing), Flossy, is a brilliant rip-off of Hekyll and Jekyll. Racist, I guess, those comics would seem now (to PC types), but those were two smart-ass irreverent crows, wiser in their cynical way than even Pogo.
Nor is the book’s quality 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 of the area, 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, comments that “that guy never got to have his big scoop.”
We all like happy endings (though some of us cannot be satisfied by them unless they arrive in a convincing and humanly possible fashion): So it’s a pleasure to be able to report that fate is kind to Ella in her epilogue: She is beginning to show in local galleries around San Francisco, and even to sell her work.) Sentimentalist that I am (in spite of my angry partisanship), I was glad that she 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.
In short, this is a hell of a good novel with a hell of a good narrator: a cracking good story full of vivid and satisfying deeds and details, 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.
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