When Camilla, the elderly spinster daughter of the infamous Captain Jack Fennel and matriarch of the Fennel family, sees her house guest holding an antique spyglass, she comments, “My father’s glass. Dr. Danvers. Are you planning a voyage?” Actually, the voyage is already underway for the young history professor who shows symptoms of seasickness the moment he steps into the Fennel house. In this house that is literally a land ship, constructed “every post and lintel” from the debris of shipwrecks off Dog Tooth Shoal, everything is awry from the wavy floors and unplumbed joints to the ideas and actions of the eccentric Fennels. Upon discovering that Ginny Fennel, a student in his class, is a descendant of the illustrious Fennels, Paul Danvers sets out to gain tenure by using the girl to get to and publish the private family papers. However, when he actually arrives in Port Ulacca, South Carolina, to examine the logbooks of this family of lighthouse keepers, his travels take him on a journey through time and experience that is quite different from what he had anticipated.

Like The Hard to Catch Mercy, Mr. Baldwin’s previous novel which won the William Smith Award in 1993, The Fennel Family Papers is an initiation story. Although Paul Danvers has been awarded his doctorate and is teaching history at the state university, he is illiterate, immature, and insubstantial—a mere ghost of a man. Ignorant, inexperienced, and inept, Paul Danvers embodies the worst of what we think about college professors. A textbook example of “those who can’t,” it is only Paul’s utter dissociation from everything and everyone, and his acute awareness of his deficiencies, that render him salvageable.

At the onset of his week with the Fennels, Paul is impervious to beauty and ignorant of violence. He does not recognize, nor does he know how to respond to, Camilla’s recitation of Wordsworth, and he cannot fathom Ginny’s mother’s love for her flower garden. As unsteady as he is inside this house, Paul feels more comfortable indoors than out, and he is no less than horrified when asked to help with the slaughter of a chicken for supper:

The idea that they would eat an animal that was at that very moment alive and running in the back yard made him uneasy.

‘You thought chickens came from meat counters, didn’t you?’

Paul shook his head no, but she was right—he did.

Terrorized by the witchcraft of Da Bena, the family cook, and brutalized at the hands of Leroy Ramona, Ginny’s homicidal uncle, Paul suffers damage to both his physical and sartorial person—the tweed jacket with chamois elbow patches, the flannel trousers, the pipe arc destroyed or discarded one by one, as his hands, feet, and eyes sustain various breaks and lacerations. Acute physical and emotional suffering, however, is for Paul ultimately benevolent and even necessary. For what he loses is irrelevant or false, and what he gains is courage, insight, and wisdom. Goaded past irritation he discovers for the first time true anger and laughter; stripped of affectation, he becomes authentic. By the end of his stay, Paul Danvers has learned what it means to become “de man of the family” and to “do the right thing” (rather than the expedient thing).

In Baldwin’s fiction, becoming human means learning how to love—becoming a man means being willing to kill, when it means defending or protecting oneself, or what one loves. This same sort of trial or test is the text of The Hard to Catch Mercy as well, but in both books it is not so much the act of killing that makes the difference as the protagonists’ willingness to face his fear. The Fennel papers and tenure, per se, become superfluous once Paul learns that for the first time in his life he has something of value to impart to his students: “And he didn’t need tenure or an article to do it. He could tell them—he could address them in an open and honest manner. He could tell them—he could tell them that despite what they would learn about the world in his class—and despite the armies of despair arranged against them—they must take responsibility for themselves and for the people around them. And above all else they must not be afraid.”

Mr. Baldwin is a versatile writer, if his first two novels are any indication. The Hard to Catch Mercy is an old-fashioned country saga that spans years, a sort of Cold Sassy Tree, but better; while The Fennel Family Papers, which takes place within a matter of days, is a compressed morality tale of contemporary life. In both the narrative technique is excellent. Less polished is Mr. Baldwin’s prose style. In The Fennel Family Papers instances of knotty syntax sometimes occasion awkward references to “the man,” and one winces in reading that an individual “enthused” (even if this particular character is effusive). Also Mr. Baldwin sometimes overextends himself in the intricacies of his ambitious plots. When past and present vie for equal time, clarity (and the reader’s comprehension) are sometimes sacrificed. In The Hard to Catch Mercy, Big Sister’s identity and role and Maum Anna’s history remain a puzzlement. In The Fennel Family Papers, which includes an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse indicating many other signs of indebtedness to this novel, we may conclude that Mr. Baldwin intends a kind of dreamy cohesion of past and present, but his technique is not entirely successful in this regard. The narrative can become irritatingly fuzzy, as in the case of Da Sena’s role in Adam’s fall and Jack Fennel’s part in his sister’s death. But Mr. Baldwin’s occasional missteps and obscurities are easily offset by his facility with characterization. The zany Fennel household is populated with colorful characters such as the desiccated Camilla (surely an incarnation of Miss Emily Grierson), the ebullient Azalea, and the sociopathic Leroy. Baldwin displays an impeccable ear in rendering the Gullah dialect of coastal South Carolina, and his depiction of blacks who are not simply hired help but part of the family—blood kin, in the Fennel case—is expert.

Further pleasure is afforded by the depth and richness of Baldwin’s themes. The Fennel Family Papers is a comic satire on college life. Southern aristocracy, and the modern ethos of paranoia. He uses the absurd not to validate absurdity, fear, and despair, but to point the way toward meaning, courage, and hope. Baldwin explores the elasticity of language and variability of perception by offering multiple interpretations, or versions, of such concepts as “doctor,” “history,” “truth.” Thus Da Bena is not merely some voodoo crone who menaces Paul Danvers and the periphery of the plot, but—like Martin Rupple, the family physician, and Paul Danvers, the doctor of philosophy—she too is a veritable “doctor” (a witch doctor) who works to bring him to an emotional and moral healing that could be wrought only by active suffering and displacement. While the entire clan at Port Ulacca work (conspiratorially and malevolently, it seems to Paul) to “educate” the young professor, it is Da Bena who receives most of the “blame”—and eventually the credit—for his coming of age. With her long tentacle arms, chocolate eyes, and piano-key teeth. Da Bena, like the house itself, seems a gift from the sea, as she and The Fennel Family Papers are indeed a gift to all readers of good fiction.


[The Fennel Family Papers, by William Baldwin (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books) 284 pp., $19.95]