Colonel William Thomas Alison. Hisrnmind is no longer trustworthy but hernstill retains some of the grandeur of arnplantation owner, onee the master ofrn106 slaves. “He had twelve children byrntwo wives and almost lived forever,” hisrngrandson Willie tells us, omitting tornmention here the black side of the famil-,rnthe Negroes who claim Alison paternityrnand live with the family as closely, asrndoggedly, and in a few cases almost asrnsilently as their shadows.rnThe novel’s complexity is deceivingrnand may appear to an unprepared readerrnto be not quite coherent. The separaternstories of Amy Mercy, Aunt Lydia, andrnKing David Alison seem at first onlyrnepisodes without much bearing uponrnone another, but the total design constellatesrnthese stories and a half dozenrnothers into a powerful figure. The conclusionrnof I’he Hard to Catch Mercy is asrnmelodramatic, as bloodcurdling even, asrnanv film director could wish for, but it isrncarefullv prepared in the best literarv wa’rnand I doubt that even Henrv Jamesrncould deny that its excesses are dramaticallyrnnecessary.rnAnd when William Baldwin goes tornexcess he doesn’t stop at the fenceline.rnEverthing is here: flood, fire, pestilencernand storm, tears and blood b thernhogshead, savage cruelty and uglv murderrnand heroic battle. This novel is arnbook of Revelations and the characterrnwho gives it its title, the Hard to CatchrnMercy himself, is all Four Horsemen inrnone, a figure both shadowy and all-tooreal,rnghostly but horribly corporeal too,rnso much larger than life that death mustrnbe an integral part of his being.rnThe Hard to Catch (Mercy is his ironicrnsurname) is the villain of the piece,rnand one of the most utterh’ satisfyingrnmonsters ever to disgrace the pages of arnbook. Baldwin enlisted Twain’s aid inrncreating this dread figure who is bloodrncousin to Huck’s cruel Pap and TomrnSawyer’s nemesis, hijun Joe. It is alwaysrna surprise to reread Twain because wernforget the element of terror in his pages,rnthe deep pitiless wilderness surroundingrnhis sunny frontier towns, the mysteriousrnmidnights with their lurkers in darkness,rnthe immanence of evil forces that nornbolt or bar can keep out.rnHere he is as he first appears to WilliernAlison: “I’d never seen him up close, andrneven now his face was half hidden by arngreat flapping strawhat. Still, there wasrnno mistaking the hardness in the man.rnThe eves were bright and dark, sunkrndeep beneath shaggy eyebrows. Truly, herncould have hypnotized birds the way arnsnake does, except nothing else aboutrnhim was snakelike. His nose blossomedrnout in the center of the face like a misplacedrnrose, and beneath that spread arnlong drooping mustache that lifted awayrnfrom the stained beard when he openedrnhis mouth to spit tobacco. Half the frontrnteeth on one side were missing. Thernclothes—the clothes didn’t fit.”rnThere is more of this particular descriptionrnbut these sentences are sufficientrnto dispel any notion that the Hardrnto Catch Mercy would make a good CubrnScout den mother. The rose metaphorrnis pungent and surprising and adds justrnthe touch of incongruity needed to makernthe figure not only menacing but eerie.rnThis eeriness increases as the story unfoldsrnuntil at last its power verges uponrnthe supernatural.rnJust as in Twain’s fiction, the evil figurernis able to do harm because the goodrnpeople are after all not so ery good. Arncold and calculated hypocrisy and arnsullen hubris divide the Alisons as a familyrnand also as individuals. They have gotrninto the habit of mistreating others,rnsometimes casually and without forethought,rnsometimes merely for the sakernof con’enienee. The contempt that thernHard to Catch has for them is plainly deserved.rnNot even young Willie is innocent.rnThe final motive for the fur’ of the Hardrnto Catch against the Alisons is the deathrnof his sister, Amy Merc, an attractivernlass who had captured the appetitive affectionsrnof most of the white males inrnCedar Point, including even the ReverendrnMr. Friendly. “Yes, I’d kissed her,”rnWillie Alison admits, “in the full andrncomplete knowledge that the carnalrnmind is enmity against God. Was it a sinrnto kiss my cousin’s girlfriend? I can’t savrnthat I gave it even a second thought.”rnHe does think of it again, however, whenrnhe is forced to pay for this kiss with another,rnwhen the Hard to Catch forcesrnhim to pry open the coffin and kiss therndead Amy.rnIt is perhaps a commonplace of moralrnfiction that a thoroughly vicious characterrncan look cynically into the souls of thernrespectable and find there the samernqualities as in himself. When the Hardrnto Catch strips Willie literally naked, hernsays, “Ain’t much to you, is there?” Hisrnobservation is not purely physical in nature.rnIn pointing out resemblances to eadierrnfiction, especially to that of MarkrnTwain, I do not mean to suggest thatrnThe Hard to Catch Mercy is in any way arnderivative book. It is not; it is a highlyrnoriginal performance. But it is an oldfashionedrnstory, unabashedly melodramatic,rnunashamedly moral in purpose,rnunblushing in its determination to entertain.rnIt fills and overfills that neatestrndescription of a good novel: it is bothrnserious in its intentions and great fun tornread. I can’t think of another contemporaryrnwriter who has made a morernsplendid debut than William Baldwin.rnHere is a writer I intend to keep reading.rnIn fact, I’m sure I’ll keep reading over thernyears this same first book. It’s that good.rnBetter.rnFred Chappell is a professor of Englishrnat the University of North Carohna atrnGreensboro and author most recentlyrnof More Shapes Than One, arncollection of short stories.rnCredornby Samuel HuxrnCan Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetryrnand American Culturernby Dana GioiarnSaint Paul Graywolf Press;rn257pp., $25.00rn^^ I ess is more” has proved to bernJ /(more often than less) a dreadfulrnaesthetic credo, inspiring and justifyingrnboldly insipid architecture better suitedrnto robots than to humans, monotonousrnmusic in which the intervals of silencernare the most welcome parts, minimalistrnvisual art that is an insult to the visiblernuniverse, and poems little different fromrnworkaday utterance one would be generousrnto call prose. But the clause “lessrnwould be more” makes a lot of sense: arngreat deal less poetry than we have wouldrnprobably be a good thing. Never hasrnmore poetry been published; never has itrnmattered less.rnThere are profound sociological reasonsrnfor the superabundance. DanarnCioia focuses on one: the proliferation ofrn”creative writing” courses, which requirerninstructors who must in turn be validatedrnby publication. “Like subsidizedrnOCTOBER 1993/39rnrnrn