Categories
Historical Fiction

WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

When Perkins-Valdez chanced upon the true story of an Ohio resort called the Tawawa House, she knew she was on to something. For a few years before the Civil War, this rural inn allowed Southern slaveholders to vacation there with their enslaved mistresses as if they were ordinary married couples. Her curiosity about the lives of these women couldn’t be satisfied by the scant facts available, so she turned to fiction. History’s loss is our gain.

Unlike Butler’s KINDRED or Morrison’s BELOVED, WENCH (2010) is not filled with horrific physical violence. The four women at the heart of the story are, relatively speaking, privileged. Lizzie, the viewpoint character, even has her own bedroom in the “big house”–though she has to share it, against her will, with her enslaver, Drayle. She’s had two children by him that she loves without reservation. She thinks she may be in love with Drayle, and he with her.

The women, who all come from different plantations in different parts of the South, only meet once a year, for a few weeks in the summer. Mawu, with her fiery red hair, is immediately the most memorable. She’s the one who fights back against the predations of her enslaver, who talks about escape. She relentlessly pushes the others to face the reality of their positions.

And that reality, as Perkins-Valdez makes increasingly clear, is that although they may be privileged, they are still property. The women may forget it for short stretches of time, but the men who own them never do.

I believe unequivocally that the way to render dialect on the page is through word choice and rhythm, not phoneticization. Phonetic spelling is a single-edged sword wielded almost exclusively against the poor. In WENCH, Perkins-Valdez shows us how to write dialect without condescension or prettifying, without dropped Gs on the one hand or flights of poetry on the other. Each of the women has a distinct voice that reflects her character and upbringing–Mawu’s abrupt, Lizzie’s educated, Sweet’s maternal, Reenie’s country. Their conversation crackles with the heat of life.

As for the descriptive prose, it is also completely free of grandstanding, evocative when it needs to be, but always welded to Lizzie’s viewpoint, drawing you deeper into the character, and into the novel, with every word.

The historic details are utterly persuasive, the settings vivid, the summer heat and smells of sweat and cooking fires inescapable. But it’s the truth of the characters’ emotions that rings most loudly of all.

Categories
Contemporary Novels

AFTERMATH by Peter Robinson

What is it about British police procedurals? In a recent article in the ATLANTIC–focused on TV shows, but applicable to novels as well–Christopher Orr chalks up the fascination to three major factors: the omnipresence of CCTV surveillance, the comparative scarcity of handguns, and the relatively greater focus on victims than on perpetrators. Crime in the UK, Orr suggests, is “a deviation from the norm…rather than the norm itself.” Police are part of a “quasi-benevolent surveillance state,” and the “absence of gunfire… almost invariably leads to more actual detective work.”

Then there are all those exotic initialisms: PC (Police Constable, a uniformed beat cop), DCI (Detective Chief Inspector, a ranking officer in the CID (Criminal Investigations Department)), DS (Detective Sergeant), and so on. There are those nearly invisible but omnipresent distinctions of social class that have never disappeared in England. There’s the slang, as when Acting DSI (Detective Superintendent) Alan Banks in AFTERMATH says, “Let’s have a butcher’s, then.” (Cockney rhyming slang: “butcher’s hook” rhymes with “look.”)

I got addicted to the genre through the superb BBC drama PRIME SUSPECT, and am still searching for that perfect series of novels that will give me the same combination of realism, characterization, and mystery. The Inspector Banks series by Peter Robinson comes close. By setting the books in and around the fictitious North Yorkshire village of Eastvale (which grows into a city as the series progresses), Robinson adds a moody natural setting to the standard crime novel toolkit, while having the gritty urban sprawl of Leeds within easy driving distance.

The early books in the series are fairly conventional; the most notable thing about Banks is that he shares his creator’s love of music, from rock and folk to opera. IN A DRY SEASON (1999), however, where substantial sections of the book are set during World War II, serves notice that his ambitions have grown along with the page count of his novels. I’m reading them in order, and just finished the twelfth in the series, AFTERMATH (2001). It’s my favorite so far, and it exemplifies many of the qualities that make British crime fiction great.

The premise, conveyed by the title, is admirable. The story opens with two uniformed cops summoned the scene of a domestic dispute. When they arrive, they find a horrific scene of serial murder and are attacked by a lunatic with a sword. PC Janet Taylor subdues him with her baton (in the US, she would simply have shot him, and there would have been no questions about “excessive force”), the CID is called in, and in most crime novels the book would be over before it began. Instead we get over 450 pages of aftermath.

The main characters are: Terry Payne, the aforementioned lunatic; Lucy Payne, his wife, who was found unconscious when the cops arrived; Maggie Forrest, the neighbor who called the police, a Canadian on the run from her abusive ex-husband; the families of the victims; and of course the cops who are trying to construct a narrative that will allow some sort of closure.

The “House of Payne,” as the press inevitably dubs it, is reduced to a shell in the course of the novel–gardens dug up, carpets ripped out, flooring pulled up, the very walls torn open in the search for evidence. It’s a symbol of the long-term after-effects of violence, and we see those effects in character after character. In fact, the murders at the Payne house turn out to be themselves the aftermath of a previous crime. Robinson has done an outstanding job of pursuing his theme through major characters and minor, the present and the past, the geographically nearby and the distant. Even the cops have their casualties.

And not all the mysteries are solved. One of the victims in the Payne house remains unidentified. Thanks to the crime, Maggie’s ex-husband has located Maggie and threatened to pay her a visit.

I do have a few minor complaints. If Robinson needs a setting for a conversation, he tends to choose a pub, and we are subjected to a full inventory of what everyone eats and drinks. Banks is constantly obsessing over his cigarettes–wanting but not able to have one, lighting one, putting one out, again and again telling himself he should quit. None of this authorial indulgence advances the plot or builds character.

As in any long-running series, a certain amount of each book is devoted to franchise maintenance. Banks’s marriage falls apart over time, he has a contentious relationship with a supervisor, his kids grow up and move away. At times the check-ins can feel a bit pro forma, but for the most part they serve the intended purpose of adding depth and continuity. There’s a large supporting cast, a number of whom are particularly memorable. DS Jim Hatchley at first seems to be a typical corrupt cop, but Banks appreciates his strengths and makes good use of him. Fellow cop Annie Cabbot–tough, ambitious, smart, and living through an aftermath of her own–is complex and sympathetic, and her vegetarianism provides a welcome contrast to Banks’s endless meat pies.

As we in the US face the consequences of four years of Donald Trump, it’s a perfect time to think about the lasting harm that people can do to each other. AFTERMATH is a rare and valuable contribution to that conversation.

Categories
Historical Fiction

THE COLD MILLIONS by Jess Walter

I joined the IWW in 2005 because of a comic book (WOBBLIES! A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD, edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman) and have remained a member in good standing ever since (X number 358133). Of course I already knew the IWW from Steinbeck and Dos Passos, and the Wobblies were considered heroes by many on the left during the 1960s. As income inequality worsens and we sink deeper and deeper into a new Gilded Age, I carry my Red Card with pride.

A few years before I joined the One Big Union, I had discovered a writer named Jess Walter, a former reporter from Spokane, WA. His first novel, OVER TUMBLED GRAVES (2001), was an atmospheric, convincing, and beautifully written police procedural, which looked to be the start of a series. Walter, however, had other plans. His detective character spent most of Walter’s second novel on the sidelines, and has not appeared since. His third novel, CITIZEN VINCE (2005), would probably have won me over more completely if I didn’t have such an aversion to mobsters.

Walter hit the big time (deservedly) with his next, THE ZERO (2006), the CATCH-22 of 9/11 (featuring a prescient evisceration of Rudy Giuliani). As in CATCH-22, what at first seems darkly hilarious turns heartbreaking by the finish; otherwise, it bears little resemblance to any other book I’ve ever read. And speaking of prescience, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS (2009) has to be the first novel to confront the crisis of 2008 head-on, boundless in its compassion for the victims of what the IWW used to call “the Trusts,” Big Business and Wall Street and all the other faceless demons of predatory capitalism.

I will skip lightly over BEAUTIFUL RUINS (2012), his mega-bestseller, which is also the only one of his novels to leave me cold. I’m just not a fan of Hollywood satire–too easy a target, in my reckoning. I was excited, then, to learn that after an eight-year gap he had published THE COLD MILLIONS (2020), a novel about the IWW and the Spokane Free Speech Riots of 1909-1910.

I had some trepidation. It’s a challenge to write a novel where good and evil are so clearly delineated, and where evil has all the power. Octavia Butler’s KINDRED, for example, or Ballard’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN. I feared a long slog through police beatings, hunger strikes, and unrelieved misery. Instead, Walter presents the main narrative through the viewpoint of Ryan “Rye” Dolan, nearly 17, and devoted to his older brother and fellow hobo, Gig. During their tramping around the Pacific Northwest, Gig has fallen under the spell of the IWW and is full of revolutionary zeal. Rye, meanwhile, remains on the margins–at least at the outset.

Breaking up Rye’s narrative are chunks of first-person testimony from other major and minor characters, each with a distinctive voice and a piece of the overall puzzle: cops, tramps, anarchists, housewives, unionists, fixers, Ursula the Great, and Gig himself. Rather than slowing the plot, these sections serve as accelerants to keep the reader emotionally engaged from start to finish.

The Spokane of THE COLD MILLIONS is both microcosm and one of a kind. Lemuel Brand, the (fictitious) robber-baron villain of the book, stands for Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford, yet is tortured by a fear that is uniquely his own. The treatment Gig receives at the hands of the Spokane police is typical of the times even as Gig himself–alcoholic, impulsive, helpless to resist his wanderlust–is completely his own man. The IWW organizers John Walsh and Frank Little carry on the tradition of Joe Hill and Mother Jones, yet became heroes themselves in Spokane.

Walsh and Little are among a number of historical figures who appear in THE COLD MILLIONS, along with acting police chief John Sullivan, lawyer Fred Moore, and, most memorably, the Rebel Girl herself, Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, married, pregnant, and traveling alone, with whom Rye cannot help falling unrequitedly in love. Gurley’s firebrand speeches on behalf of the IWW ignite the plot of the book as they did the historical riots. Walter seamlessly integrates fact and fiction, and admirably tries to separate them again in his acknowledgements.

Period details are rich and evocative, the appropriate slang sprinkled in judiciously, with only a very few moments that felt anachronistic. Otherwise the clothes, d├ęcor, personal hygiene, mores, and politics all rang true.

As a prose stylist, Walter has always been clean and vivid, writing in the rhythm and vocabulary of his viewpoint characters. He’s only gotten better over the years. There’s scene in THE COLD MILLIONS where Gurly faces down a homicidal mob that is a marvel of ventriloquism and a master class in how to write a soliloquy. As a delineator of character, he finds humanity where you least expect it. As a plotter, he is more than happy to deploy the skills he honed as a thriller writer. He’s said in interviews that he considers suspense fully compatible with literature, and THE COLD MILLIONS is proof.

You would be hard pressed to find a historical novel with more relevance to the oligarchy we are living under right now. Walter’s novel ends in 1964, with the testimony of one last surviving character, wishing for something he could say to his children and grandchildren that would sum up what he’s learned. “Something that would open their hearts and create in them an unassailable courage, a generosity of spirit, faith in humanity.”

That something, of course, is THE COLD MILLIONS.