James Wilcox: Modern Baptists; Dial Press; New York.
Joan Williams: Pariah and Other Stories; Atlantic/Little, Brown; Boston.
by Fred West
First novels can be wonderful events, given the shrinking market for fiction these days. In general, creative writers have hit the bottom of the totem pole, as indicated by the endless string of credits flashed before and/or after every TV production—which is where most of our “literature” originates today. Everyone, it seems, is credited before the writer, from the producer to the wigmaker for the leading lady to the errand boy. There are exceptions, of course, if the writer is a Herman Wouk or a James Clavell. Thus, when a novel is published, one hopes that it will be more than just the economic blockbuster the publisher prays it will be; one hopes that it will also be a marvelous adventure in language, thought and thought, and entertainment. When the writer of the novel is a Southerner, he is, justifiably, compared with the great Southern writers. James Wilcox, the author of Modem Baptist does not yet belong to that company.
A work of fiction should make some important statement about the human condition, or it should at least entertain. When it does both, the reader is rewarded and the writer is justified. Except in rare moments, Modern Baptists does neither. Again, those comparisons: when Erskine Caldwell writes about a rascal, though the character is not admirable nor one to be emulated, he still provides deep, gutsy laughs for the reader. Quite rightly, much humorous Southern writing has been called Rabelaisian. The title Modem Baptists suggests that we are going to be entertained by an up-to-date coterie of ol’ Southern down-by-the-riverside types. Though one feint is made in this direction by Wilcox, nothing really comes of it. The main characters, Mr. Perkins and his half-brother F.X., are losers. Good Southern writing has produced some of the weirdest weirdos in the business, but they are interesting curiosities. Faulkner, Caldwell, and O’Connor all made creations that are sometimes repellent but always intriguing. Mr. Perkins and F.X., however, are “of the glands,” in Faulkner’s words. Their griefs “grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars.” These two characters are not tragic enough for this to be a serious novel, nor are they funny enough for it to be consistently entertaining. Some writers have the ability to make their readers identify even with their villains, though we know they are rogues and should be punished or totally eliminated. As far as Mr. Perkins and F.X. are concerned, most of us would rather swim through snake-infested bayous at midnight than identify with either of them. To rely on Faulkner again, Wilcox writes “of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value.” When they are losing, we simply don’t care; when they are being funny, their acts sometimes turn into the uncomfortable performances of third-rate comedians who leave us more embarrassed for them than amused.
Perhaps if a distinctive Southern atmosphere came through meaningfully, or if some of the many loose ends of the plot were tied up, the story would tug more strongly at the reader. But the overall feeling is: So what? As one critic recently said, “We’ve developed a clay foot fetish.” We have rejected biggerthan-life heroes; we have run the gamut of antiheroes; now we’re left with non-heroes. That is not the way to pump new blood into an endangered art form.
Joan Williams, too, writes about losers, but one can empathize with her characters, even though they sometimes arouse our anger and impatience when they take the wrong steps toward solving their problems. The settings of the stories in Pariah range from the not-sodistant past to the present, and most of the plots center on a familiar problem—the inability to communicate and adjust, particularly across generation or social gaps. Her stories are gems, each complete in itself but multifaceted, flashing additional suggestions and insights or mirroring different reactions depending upon the views of the readers.
The title story “Pariah” is a tale of a familiar problem. The central character is a closet alcoholic, a modern house wife overcome by boredom and lacking sufficient initiative to make her life worthwhile. She is a rotten mother to her two children, a sloppy housekeeper, an unattractive mate to her husband, and a. pariah to her former friends. Williams does not condemn or condone; she presents the story with such skill and realism that the reader is involved. But as important as the plot are those twinkling facets, barely suggesting that in an earlier time, without the gadgetry of the modern household, the woman would have been so busy making a home raising the kids, caring about the needs of a husband, that she would not have had time to be bored. Or a reader might reflect that, given that the character is so far gone that her frustrated husband might do what many modern husbands do, file for divorce and custody of the children, a judge would almost invariably, without weighing the merits of the case, award custody of the children to the incompetent mother, thus aggravating the problems of all concerned.
Four of the stories are about race relations in the New South. Here again, the facets are as alluring as the plots themselves. “Going Ahead” presents young Tad and Grandpa, two rural Southerners driving into town to see Santa Claus. Integration is still recent, and in the imagination of many of the older generation of whites there is danger of violence from the blacks. In Grandpa the real dilemma of integration is crystallized, the ambivalence of the Southern white toward his black neighbors. He is not a “redneck nigger-hater.” Grandson Tad points out, “You’ve sat next to Negroes before”; Grandpa has often sat beside the field hands in trucks and broken open watermelons in the field and eaten with them. But he cannot cope with the situation when a black sits down on the stool next to him at a lunch counter. Like so many old-timers, Grandpa feels a sense of noblesse oblige toward “his” Negroes, but, in his view, they “know their place.” As he tells his grandson, “They’ve never set to the table with me.” He is irrevocably set in his patterned beliefs. The same response holds true for the black Jesse, in the story of that name. Jesse suffers the poverty and frustration typical of so many Southern sharecroppers, white and black Yet, when he is given the broad opportunity to escape the grinding existence futile, which tie him to the seasonal rhythms of farming.
Two of the stories, “The Morning and the Evening” and “The Sound of Silence,” are about Jake, that most Southern of grotesques, the community half-wit. Since Williams is hailed as the protégée of William Faulkner, it is inevitable that a comparison be drawn between Williams’s Jake and Faulkner’s Benjy. Repellent in some ways, both these mentally retarded creatures are still sympathetic, although it would be a mistake to use the abused term “compassionate” to describe Williams’s presentation. Her carefully crafted prose is too objective to hint of sentimentality. And yet the reader is enthralled; like Coleridge’s Wedding Guest, he “cannot choose but hear,” and ultimately be touched.
Many of the Southern greats seem naturally possessed of the magical essence of language, the primal incantatory quality so characteristic of Faulkner and so uncontrolled in Thomas Wolfe, which enchants the reader (originally, listener) by its sonorous rhythms as much as by its meaning. Williams’s prose is restrained and more consciously artistic. It is spare, with the precise word or phrase to evoke the desired image or sound or smell in the mind of the reader. In only two of the stories does her deftness falter: in one story her lean prose becomes a bit too meager, and another, the shortest of the collection, has the artificial neatness of O. Henry at his worst. But the balance of Pariah more than makes up for any lapses in this talented woman’s storytelling.
Dr. West writes from Whitsett, NC.
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