Apostles of Light, by Ellen Douglas

This 1973 work is an old-fashioned novel, for which it might be difficult to get a publisher today. Primarily because nothing much happens in its opening chapters, which is filled with family members talking extensively as they decide what to do with their surviving older generation. We follow long speculative conversations as they discuss their responsibilities when Aunt Elizabeth dies, and their elderly Aunt Martha survives. They convince themselves that they want to do what is best for Martha, and yet they are also concerned with the financial implications of what they do decide.

This is a tedious process to follow, as the younger generation decides to convert Martha’s house into a home for old people, called Golden Age Acres. Martha agrees, on the condition they accept her long-time boyfriend Lucas as a resident. The idea for the home originates with smooth-talking cousin Howie (keeping it in the family), who managers the facility and who hires Mrs. Crawley as its nurse. These two characters become the villains of the novel, as they pursue their personal success and the home’s financial success at the expense of its residents. Meanwhile, the responsible family members, Albert, George, and George’s son Newton persuade themselves of the benefits of offering a home for a half dozen or so older people, for it both contributes to society and brings companionship to Aunt Martha.

But this is not the life Martha wants. She wants to be independent and to enjoy life with Lucas. He is a doctor with whom she has been romantically linked for decades but has never married. Indeed, their search for companionship and happiness becomes the emotional center of this novel, and the suspense builds as we read to learn whether or not this elderly couple will indeed assume control of their own lives. For independence to them means they will leave Golden Age, which, in turn, means that it will likely fail. And, of course, Howie and Mrs. Crawley oppose this. Indeed, they lie to the family about their careful care of the elderly and resort to drugging not only Lucas but other patients in order to control the situation.

And so, the novel’s main issue is: will Lucas and Martha find happiness together? It is unusual to have a novel centered on such elderly characters, but the work creates considerable power as they pursue their independence. The couple even seeks the aid of Homer, a black caretaker, which complicates the novel, since this story is set in Mississippi. We delve rather deeply into Homer’s mind, in fact, as he plots not only to help Martha and Lucas but also to protect his own black family. And this is not a sidetrack, because he eventually becomes their only hope.

At this point, I decided that, given the tone of the novel, Douglas was more likely to come up with a positive ending. But that she would create a more powerful work if Martha and Lucas failed. Without giving away the solution to their problem, I must say Douglas’ ending does not work for me. Basically, it fails my standards of humanity. First, it introduces too much violence. It is dramatic, yes, highly dramatic, but this reader was completely unprepared for the direction it took. And second, a major individual, for me, acts completely out of character. The author seems aware of this, given some internal dialogue, but such musing does not succeed with me.

One must be familiar with the Bible to grasp the significance of the title. As the book cover says, “Trapped in a nursing home, [the couple] are the victims of the biblical ‘apostles of light,’ the deceitful do-gooders who profess righteousness.” For me, however, the purpose of this title is not to suggest that Howie and Mrs. Crawley are major characters, but to emphasize the situation that these righteous do-gooders put Martha and Lucas in. That is, the title is intended to be ironic.

The blurb goes on to day: “In subtle, elegant prose Ellen Douglas recounts a gripping story of their brave attempt to free themselves from a dreadful plight. They must confront both their corrupt and evil custodians and their well-meaning younger relatives who are tempted by greed, ambition, cowardice, and indifference.” Thus, the family also plays a major role in this situation, seeing itself doing good, when it truly is not. As a result, Douglas draws an effective portrait of a Southern society striving to get ahead on one level, and yet still locked into its old traditional attitudes. That is, it truly captures the texture of Southern society.

To review, even with its slow beginning, much more typical of a novel of 45 years ago than of one today, I was willing to give full attention this family. Because its people were well grounded. I grasped their relationship to one another, their sense of responsibility, their individual priorities, and their sincere effort, even if misguided, to resolve Aunt Martha’s situation. And then, as they tried to adjust to the villainies of Howie and Mrs. Crowley, the author creates the tension that any novel, any drama needs. And so, by the time Lucas and Martha realize that they need to act, the suspense has reached a fever pitch. This is no longer the quiet novel of the opening chapters.

And the literary world recognized this achievement, when it nominated Apostles of Light as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1973. It did so, I believe, because its portrait of Southern society recognized the relationship between whites and blacks, because it created a viable family that worked together even when at cross-purposes, and because the novel as a whole dealt with the responsibilities of both individual families and society for the elderly.

Did it offer this recognition despite the ending, or because of it? For me, it was an ending I was unprepared for—in fact, a cop out. As if the author could not come up with a logical and dramatic success, or a logical and dramatic failure, for the couple, and decided to resort to high drama instead—to go for a surprise. And my personal reaction is that the tone of this surprise and the tone of the violence violated the prior tone of the entire novel.

This novel does not encourage me to look into more of Douglas’ work. (April, 2018)

Two Jake Brigance novels, by John Grisham

I have not read John Grisham’s legal thrillers, because of my impression that they are more thrillers than works of literature. But I had heard that his first work, written in 1989, was impressive, and that it had helped Grisham make an early mark in the world of fiction.

Well, those reports were correct. A Time to Kill is an impressive work, and can even claim the label of literature. Because it is about more than a legal case, about more than a courtroom drama, about more than an interesting lawyer acting under duress. It is about an entire society, the American South of the 1980s. It is about race and politics, about white and black relationships, about rape and justice, about demonstrations and violence, about ambition and doubt, about ethics and morality. In its own way, it parallels the work of Scott Turow, with the culture of the South here replacing that of Turow’s Chicago-like city.

A Time to Kill is about two drunken white red necks who rape a ten-year-old black girl, Tonya Hailey, in an opening scene that is blunt, graphic, and tough to read. The men are caught, and, in reaction, the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, executes the two rapists in cold blood while they are being transferred from the courthouse.

From this point forward, however, the reader is pulled back from a close-up view of the events, and becomes a witness to a carefully crafted and complex story of lawyers, the courts, the public’s response, and the overall administration of justice. Beyond the complexity however, is an emotional level, for the reader relates to the father’s revenge, and is meant to, even as he also acknowledges that the murder of the two men was a criminal act. So the reader is torn by separate responses, one by his heart and the other by his mind. He is faced with a choice between true justice and legal justice.

The lawyer chosen to defend Carl Lee is Jake Brigance, a smart, honest, young lawyer in the small Mississippi town of Clanton. He dreams of the big time, and his local reputation has earned him this big case, which challenges his ability, his integrity, his patience, and his loyalty. His key problem is: to get Carl Lee off with a plea of temporary insanity. Around him are his elderly secretary Ethel Twitty; the disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his firm; Harry Rex Vonner, a ruthless divorce lawyer often in his cups; Ellen Roark, a brilliant, aggressive law student from Boston who steals each scene she is in; and Carla, Jakes’ wife, whom he sends out of town when local citizens threaten violence.

In town, Jake must deal with Ozzie Walls, the only black sheriff in the state; Omar Noose, a smart politician turned judge; Rufus Buckley, an ambitious DA; the Rev. Agee, leader of the local black ministers; and Stump Sisson, leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Plus, a public audience of the protesting black community, the National Guard, and members of the Klan. Not to forget a crooked Memphis lawyer, Bo Marsharfsky, and a more aggressive NAACP lawyer, Norman Reinhold, brought in to defend Carl Lee.

At a low point, Jake complains about what he, his firm, and his family have endured. Now close to bankruptcy, he senses his case and his reputation lost. Moreover, his secretary’s husband has been assaulted and died. Klan snipers have shot and paralyzed a Guardsman protecting him. His legal aide has been assaulted. His house has been burned down. His wife may be divorcing him. And, finally, he expects his client, Carl Lee, to fire him.

In summary, these seem like melodramatic events. But they have happened progressively, as both black and white forces increase their public pressure on the court and on Jake. Which makes inevitable each move toward violence in this battle to control the outcome of the trial. Resulting, of course, in greater tension in the community, as well as in the novel. Jake is a fighter, however, and he resists every move to outwit him or to intimidate him.

If there is any disappointment, it is the lack of a strong ending. First, Jake is confronted with the need to make a strong rebuttal to a key prosecution witness challenging his insanity plea. And then he needs to make a strong summing up. Yet we see him make no effort to meet either need—until, suddenly, he does. Unexpectedly. And we never see him preparing. As a result, it is the reader who is unprepared. And Jake’s success seems hollow.

Second, after the verdict is placed in the hands of the jury, we follow them into the jury room, whereupon one juror suggests what she promises is a novel solution. Grisham then cuts away, so we do not know what that solution is. And when it comes, pages later, it turns out to be a letdown. For it becomes simply a sensible suggestion. Whereas, the reader has expected it to be something original, a brilliant interpretation of the law, or of justice, that sheds new light on the entire trial. Indeed, on the entire novel. But it does not.

What we have here is a brilliant novel that explores Southern society at a crucial point in its long history, a point at which racial equality is being demanded by one side and resisted by another. And, with many resisting the law’s move toward equality, real emotions swirl across this town.

In addition, this story of a society is complemented by individual stories of the people involved. Most prominent is lawyer Jake Brigance, who is both sympathetic to change and sympathetic as a person. He is on the right side. But his allies are not all upstanding figures, and his enemies are either smart or ruthless. There is real tension here and a believable adversary. There is also suspense regarding the jury’s verdict, but disappointment, as I said, in the novel’s resolution.

This work does not turn me on to Grisham’s legal thrillers. But I am interested in Sycamore Row, which he wrote twenty-five years later, and is a sequel of sorts to this novel. Does it also have literary ambitions?

What would be interesting to explore is why Grisham turned to writing popular legal thrillers instead of attempting to explore Southern society more deeply in subsequent works. Did he feel himself inadequate to do so? Did writing about the South in depth require more time than his family budget allowed? This novel was originally published by a small press, after being rejected by major publishers. Did the temptation of a major publisher and its marketing needs become too strong to resist? (March, 2017)

 

Sycamore Row, this second novel, from 2013, reaches the borderline of literary works, but does not quite cross it. It reaches it by adding its portrait of Southern culture, meaning whites vs. blacks, to its main story. In this case, Grisham’s return to Clanton, Mississippi, bring us not a story of murder, as in A Time to Kill, set three years earlier, but the strange writing of a will. There are also no violence, no demonstrations. There is mainly puzzlement, about why a rich white man, dying of cancer, could leave millions to a black woman, a housekeeper who worked for and cared for him during the last three years of his life.

Grisham here uses the complexities of law that characterizes his legal thrillers, but it is the racial angle that pervaded the South in the 1980s that distinguishes this work. As in A Time to Kill, the issue is whether a person, Seth Hubbard, a rich recluse, was of sound mind when he wrote by hand a will that disinherited his family. As a wealthy lumberman, dying of cancer, he had undergone chemo and was taking Demerol. Did that treatment affect his decision-making? Or did black housekeeper Lettie Lang persuade him to omit his children and grandchildren from that final will, a will which proposes to make her the richest woman in Ford County?

The hero again is Clanton lawyer Jake Brigance, who has recovered professionally from the murder case three years earlier, but not financially. But, again, his local reputation has earned him this new case. For, on the night before he hangs himself on a sycamore tree, Seth Hubbard writes his will and designates Jake as the lawyer to see that the will is enforced. Thus, as the lawyer for the estate, Jake is determined to see that it is applied. He is opposed by lawyers for Seth’s two deadbeat and selfish children, Herschel and Ramona, and his four grand children. Some critics feel these family portraits weighs the novel too heavily against Jake’s foes, but this works for a novel with a liberal bias. Finally, Judge Atlee, in whose court the will is challenged, is a fair judge, a smart judge, but a judge subject to Southern mores, and while he and Jake get along, Jake is not sure of him at times.

We spend some time reading about the opposing lawyers as they devise their strategy and discover evidence that will besmirch the character of Lettie—discoveries which also create suspense for the reader. There is also further tension, created by an aggressive black lawyer from Memphis, Booker Sistrunk, which recalls similar ill-timed disruptions in A Time to Kill by Bo Marsharfsky and Norman Reinhold. But Judge Atlee will not stand for Sistrunk, and Grisham returns his focus to Jake and his team’s effort to support the hand-written will. His team again includes Harry Rex Vanner, a divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his law firm, plus a new member, Portia Lang, a young and ambitious black woman who is the daughter of Lettie.

Contributing to the texture that underscores this work are the legal steps that Jake must make to support his case. This means probate (proving that a will is valid), appraisal (determining the value of the estate), discovery (of those who will testify and the evidence to be presented), and the deposition (an overview of what witnesses or experts are to say). In other words, as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Grisham details the dirty tricks, data dumping, and witness dumping routinely used by a large legal team to flummox the other side.”

A side story, not that significant, concerns Lettie’s antagonistic relationship with her husband, Simon Lang. He drinks, has no steady job, and has been known to beat her. She is considering divorce, when he accidently hits and kills two young boys with his car. This sidetracks her, and distracts Jake in his efforts on her behalf.

In a more significant side story, Grisham sends Lucien off to Alaska to find Seth’s brother, Ancil, who is mentioned in the will but has long ago disappeared. And, as a perceptive reader might anticipate, it turns out that Ancil holds the key to this novel. For it is he who reveals why Seth left his fortune to Lettie. This produces an ending that the reader completely accepts, an ending that refers back to the South’s racial history, but it is also an ending that is almost too neat in how it brings a sense of justice to Seth’s final decision to change his will. However, Grisham then introduces an even higher sense of justice, when Judge Atlee makes a decision of his own. Yet, for me, this reflects an author merely deciding to deepen the satisfaction of his readers. It is a double ending, not unlike that of A Time to Kill.

The strength of this novel lies in its portrait of a determined and honest Jake, in the collaborative efforts by his team and the opposing team of lawyers, in the sense of anticipation felt by the rejected offspring of Seth, and in the racial culture of the South—which involves everything from the tension between the Hubbard and Lang families that goes back decades to the community friction between the races, highlighted in the jury selection. And, finally, there is the dramatic scene in which Seth revisits that day when, as a boy, he witnessed the historic, climactic events that gives the novel its title.

I do think this novel might have been stronger, if Lettie had become a more introspective character, if, instead of tracking her problems with her husband, we had been allowed to see inside her, to glimpse how she felt about the impending wealth that awaited her. But she is reserved, knows her place, and has learned not to anticipate any such benefit from the world she lives in. Indeed, Grisham pulls back from her when she tells Jake she has the answer to two adverse discoveries made by the opposing lawyers. But we never do get to hear her defend herself.

Perhaps because this novel centers on a will rather than a murder, it explores the legal world more thoroughly than does A Time to Kill. Of course, that novel also explored the racial tension in the community, whereas, in this novel, the cultural element, the racial tension, exist more at the family level, at the unknown relationship between Lettie and Seth and the known relationship that survives between Lettie’s family and Seth’s family.

One might also note another contrast, that this novel focuses on how a woman’s life might be transformed for the better by the outcome of a legal proceeding, while the earlier Clanton novel focused on how the figurative destruction of a woman’s life led to a lengthy legal proceeding, as well as to the destruction of two lives and to community violence. The earlier novel carried a larger significance. Lives were at stake. But this novel holds its own as an exploration of justice and the racial tension in the South. (March, 2017)

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy

This 1986 work is not quite literature, but I am tempted to call it a great novel. Because it is so enjoyable—and I almost did not read it! It is a story of a family, of its Southern culture, and of madness. The narrator hero is Tom Wingo, shy and lacking in confidence in his youth, when much of the tale takes place, and a confident and mature football coach as he is telling his story. Tom has traveled to New York City as the novel begins because his twin sister Savannah, a young and successful poet, has attempted suicide once again. While there, he describes to Susan Lowenstein, Savannah’s psychiatrist, his own youth and the life that has formed himself and his sister, indeed his entire family. This tale, related in flashbacks, is the heart of the novel.

Tom’s family leads a fascinating life, and it represents both the major portion of the novel and its richest portion. It is rich because of Tom’s mother and father, his older brother Luke, his religious grandfather and his eccentric grandmother, as well as his twin sister. It is even richer because it captures the flavor of the small-town Colleton, SC, and contrasts it with the bustle of New York City. Savannah spends her life intent to get away from that town’s Southern culture, and Tom is unable to abandon it.

This has to be Conroy’s most ambitious novel, and, except for a small segment toward the end, he succeeds wonderfully. He does return to the violent, disciplined father of his earlier novels, but his portrait of Henry Wingo is nuanced, making him both a war hero and a dreamer who futilely seeks business opportunities that will make him rich. The author gives more effort, however, to the complexity of Tom’s mother, Lila Wingo, a woman who plans her every step and considers herself both perfect and superior to everyone else. A subplot follows her climb into the town’s upper crust.

And yet the heart of this novel is the relationship among Tom, Savannah, and Luke. They love each other and always support each other, whether their parents discipline them, Savannah attempts suicide, Tom thinks himself a failure at life, or Luke rebels against the government.

That rebellion is the only weak portion of the novel, as Luke retreats into the swamp to conduct a guerilla action against the federal takeover of his hometown. And this takes us out of the family story, even out of the clash of Northern and Southern cultures. Instead, the novel offers a brief, right-wing diatribe against nuclear war and governmental authority. It is even out of character for quiet, mild-mannered Luke. Of course, to balance the novel politically, there is a significant section when the football team Tom coaches rejects a black running back—until his speed helps them win a few games.

But it is the family story that makes this novel, plus its deeply felt portrait of the swamp, streams, and bay of the South Carolina low country, where Henry and his sons earn their living as shrimp-boaters and their reputation as less fortunate members of society. Mother Lila is in combat with that society, of course, as well as with her husband, and often with her children. Her children love her, however, even as she claims they do not. But her interesting portrait is really background to the children’s stories.

The primary portrait is of narrator Tom, who has a poor opinion of himself as a youth, but by the time he goes to New York to help Savannah he is much more aware of both his faults and his value. Estranged from his wife, whom he has discovered is having an affair, he still loves his three daughters, and feels a certain guilt when he is attracted to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. We read to learn what will develop with Lowenstein, as he calls her, and find at the end a satisfying, if unusual in today’s terms, resolution.

Savannah herself is more real as a young girl yearning to escape what she considers a backward Southern culture and then fleeing to New York to be a poet. She is highly opinionated, and quite interesting to listen to. Luke is the quietest and steadiest of the group, making his final actions more surprising, even unconvincing, although he does lead an escapade in which the three kidnap a porpoise from an aquarium and then release it.

The most interesting scenes in this novel often evolve around Tom’s conversations, often adversarial. Such as with his parents and siblings, but also with Lowenstein and even such minor characters as wealthy Reese Newberry, who is trying to buy up all of the town of Colleton, and both Lowenstein’s son Bernard and her violinist husband, Henry Woodruff in New York.

I was particularly dawn in by Tom’s witty, cynical observations. They evolve out of his early disillusion with his own character. He calls himself “’the most dishonest person I’ve ever met. I never know exactly how I feel about something.” But these conversations also work because they turn in unexpected directions, consistent with each character, and the others often make excellent responses to Tom’s frequently sarcastic opinions.

The novel’s movement from the present in New York to different pasts is effective, even when the shift occurs at suspenseful moments, but it also makes one aware of the author’s technique. And toward the end, it is somewhat confusing regarding the timing of Luke’s fate, Tom’s fate, and Savannah’s fate. Also notable is the absence of Luke in the later time frame, and the hints that something dire will soon be told. For a while, it appears to be referring to the simultaneous rapes of Lila, Savannah, and Tom, but that highly dramatic event is only an anti-climax.

Some critics have felt that too much happens in this novel. As Gail Goodman wrote in The New York Times, “ In The Prince of Tides, the smart man and serious writer in Pat Conroy have been temporarily waylaid by the bullying monster of heavy-handed, inflated plot and the siren voice of Mother South at her treacherous worst—embroidered, sentimental, inexact, telling it over and over again as it never was.” Except, I would argue that this is the South as it was to these particular characters at this time. It is a convincing South, a South attempting to preserve a way of life that belongs to the past, and a family of the South caught up in contradictions that follow their recognition of a changing world.

To me, this novel works, except for Luke’s melodramatic moment at the end. And it then recovers with a tender Epilogue that convincingly portrays a Tom who can love two women. Because each has met a need he has had in a certain period of his life, and he will not forgot this.

The Prince of the title is Luke, even if he is not the main character. But he is a major character, and he stands for the preservation of the local culture and local environment that is so lovingly evoked here. Moreover, the book’s climax that revolves around his actions will lead Savannah to create a new book of poems in his name.

While Henry Wingo converts to Catholicism when he is saved by a priest in World War II, neither religion nor Catholicism play a major role here. The closest is when Amos Wingo, Tom’s grandfather, parades up and down the local streets with a cross over his shoulder on Good Friday. But he is regarded as an eccentric by the community. He is also regarded as a good man, when he takes back his wife after she has left him for another man and then toured the world until she runs out of money. Amos is included more for Southern flavor than religious flavor, therefore, and Tom’s own faith never becomes a part of his failure to relate emotionally to his wife or a part of his success in relating to Lowenstein. Indeed, Tom’s emotional evolution into a caring rather than a cynical person, as a result of the events depicted in this novel, helps to bring an overall unity and resolution to this work.

To sum up, I found this a rich and entertaining novel. I relish those works in which a mature narrator looks back on a troubled and uncertain youth, and tries to make sense of it. I also enjoy the clash of cultures, here that of provincial South Carolina and sophisticated New York, although it is more from Tom’s viewpoint than Savannah’s, because his is more a search for values in the difference, whereas Savannah clearly made her decision for New York even before she left.

Yes, this novel piles incident after incident, from a revenging tiger to a saved porpoise, from a downed pilot to a downtown Good Friday walk with the Cross, from a manipulating mother to a failing and criminal father, from the feminist grandmother to the socially ambitious mother, from hatred of one’s parents and one’s culture, to love, and then from the evocation of Southern swamp country to sophisticated New York offices and restaurants.

Even if Tom himself says that what he is relating is a “grotesque family melodrama,” the reader who buys into this tale as I do will appreciate the rich imagination that creates worlds of hate, ambition, violence, cunning, despair, and denial, alongside worlds of love, hope, courage, integrity, and this family’s search for self-acceptance.

This may be Conroy at the peak of his powers, offering his final exploration of a disruptive family. It does leave me uncertain, however, about whether or not to pursue his works further. (April, 2015)