At the beginning of this, Jack Butler’s first novel, is an exchange between the narrator of the book and a character called Nephew. “You got a black voice and a white voice,” says Nephew. “A kind voice and a cruel voice.”
“I want the voices to come together in one whole voice,” is the narrator’s reply. It is with this prophetic bit of dialogue that Butler sets about doing just that--blending voices in an attempt to bring together opposing forces at play in his characters as well as in the world of his novel.
That world is Jackson, Miss., and the time is the early ‘60s. Black and white are at odds, and the result is the violent turn in the struggle for civil rights.
Into this world, Butler brings Roger Wing, a young man who since his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage finds himself, “at once accepted and ignored, like a new rock in a shallow creek.” Roger’s mother after having brought Roger up in the shadow if not the spirit of Baptist theology, has now come around to her husband’s brand of lukewarm Presbyterianism. Roger received his last dose of old-time religion as a young boy. “The message had warned against the federal government, the ecumenical movement, and speaking in tongues.” Roger feels cast off and lonely. He sees a demonstration of jujitsu given by a Taiwanese gentleman in the high school auditorium, and a vision of his future takes shape. “It was an image of noble deeds, the deeds of a warrior-saint in the cause of justice, an image of his own studio in Jackson. . . .”
Roger finds space in what was once a Laundromat in a downtown black neighborhood. There he pledges his discipline in the martial arts to the service of the Lord, forming the Jujitsu for Christ Club. It is there as well that he becomes friends with a black family, the Gandys, most significantly with the young Marcus. When Roger first encounters Marcus, he does not know until Marcus speaks that he is black. Marcus is light-skinned and green-eyed. It is Marcus, with the hybrid black/white voice that Butler invents for him, who narrates the story. Through him and the rest of the Gandy family, Roger becomes entangled in the struggle for civil rights, and he ends up raising Marcus as his own son when that struggle breaks apart the Gandys.
On the surface, this is what the book is about, but it is Butler’s positioning of Roger in a world somewhat alien to him and the numerous moral choices he must make there that give the book its edge. Roger sees a bum killed and wants justice done. Feeling somehow involved, perhaps responsible, he cannot bring himself to tell the police what he has seen. When he tries to straighten things out later, the police are indifferent. Blacks kill blacks--good riddance is the law’s stance. Logic in this world is convoluted by that world’s very standards, Roger sees. It is Gandy who gives Roger a hard, elegant way to view this apparent contradiction. When Killer, the murderer, shows up at Roger’s studio to take lessons, Roger asks Gandy’s advice. “What people like him do to people like us is like a accident. It’s like a rock falling on you. It ain’t good, but it ain’t a contradiction either. It’s true, but it ain’t justice exactly.” A kind of justice does prevail when Roger witnesses Killer being sexually abused for pay at a Klan rally.
This grafting of two opposing wrongs to somehow make right is what makes great fiction. Butler knows Southern bigotry in all of its guises. He knows what it sounds like, whether on the lips of a Baptist preacher calling for a love-thy-neighbor approach to racial problems, or in the newspaper column of a right-wing editor who reduces the struggle to a communist/labor-union-inspired plot. In these passages, Butler’s voices are unerring, revealing and humorous. His abilities as a poet (Butler is the author of two volumes of poetry) are in evidence as well. What begins as a shirt-dampening description of the Mississippi heat: “A slab of steaming time, a hundred cubed: a hundred days at a hundred degrees and a hundred degree humidity. Resin bulges in big globby tears from the trunks of the pines, a sheet of paper wilts in your hand--by noon you can wipe your face with it like a handkerchief,” gains lyric power until it becomes a vision of Hell-and-Mississippi where all are equal--differences burned away.
In his less than careful use of what is supposed to be a synthesis of Marcus’ black and white, kind and cruel, glad and mourning voices, Butler too often robs the novel of its mythic potential. Marcus refers to himself at times in the third person, other times, he holds forth on this or that subject in first- person monologues. The narrative is interrupted, and the result is confusion about who is speaking. The narrator addresses the reader, commenting on a scene that is already satisfying and self-explanatory. When Roger gets a job as a bank guard, the gun at his side upsets the balance that through his physical and spiritual training, he has worked so hard to achieve. We get it. But the narrator intrudes like an overtalkative tour guide. When the narrator confesses that he doesn’t know why he is writing the book, “Won’t know till I finish. Might suspect, but won’t know,” we are robbed of the pleasure of the journey. Finally, what has promised to be a healing of the rift between opposites, turns out to be a viewing of an old wound when Marcus tells us that he is writing the story to be noticed by his father.
Butler’s novel, though always original, is less often engaging for this.