For more than a century, white Southerners, with the blessing of court, custom and statute, did terrible things to black Americans. Their evil has been well documented, and that era, at least where the law is concerned, is over. The novelist should be encouraged to go back over the soil only if he can unearth new truths. This David Stout attempts to do in "Carolina Skeletons," a modest but intriguing first novel. His success is mixed, but Stout has such a clean, clear writing style, the journey is worth the price of the ticket.
The novel is semi-documentary in form. Stout, currently an editor for the New York Times, has based his tale on the true story of a murder and the punishment that followed it, a case that became landmark in the history of capital punishment in this country.
In 1944, in the tiny South Carolina mill town of Alcolu, two white girls on a March outing were murdered by someone wielding an iron railroad spike. A 14-year-old black boy, George Stinney Jr., who had been seen in the vicinity of the girls, was picked up by the local sheriff and charged with the murder. Within a matter of months, he was tried, convicted and executed--making him the youngest person ever legally put to death in the United States in modern times.
In Stout's fictional version, the boy, Linus Bragg, is made to sign a confession he never made and doesn't comprehend. The sheriff, indeed the entire machinery of justice, is portrayed as being in an unseemly hurry to get someone convicted and fried for the crime, so the county and state can settle down to their normal level of petty, rural meanness. The whole system is canted to railroad the boy into the electric chair--starting with a lackadaisical white defense lawyer who is forced to take the case and then persuaded by the governor's aides not to ask for a change of venue. In the end, the boy dies, without even his parents as witnesses, and is then forgotten.
Up to this point--which coincides with the first half of the book--the story is pretty well told, though not particularly riveting. The characters, though neatly drawn, are almost totally stereotypical. Other than the boy's tender age as an accused murderer, there is nothing new here to command interest.
Then the author introduces Bragg's nephew, an out-of-work, dipsomaniac black reporter from New Jersey, who 44 years after the crime decides to look into the case. His appearance energizes the novel and gives it a new dimension.
James Willop, fighting the bottle, his own fear of white Southerners and the shadow of failure that haunts him, begins methodically plodding through old documents and interviewing survivors of the era when the murder took place. The sheriff is still alive, being cared for in a retirement home where his voice has been stilled by a stroke. He is out of reach to Willop, but the sheriff's redneck deputy grants him an interview, revealing that Bragg had confessed to peeking at the gamboling white girls--at a time when young blacks weren't supposed to fantasize about whites. Willop is also able to talk to a black sharecropper, who inadvertently leads him to the white mill foreman who was also near the girls at the time of their murders. Within a day or two, both the sharecropper and the deputy are killed under suspicious circumstances. A warrant is issued for the gun-toting Willop (because of his almost-white features, he is able to pass for white throughout most of the narrative). The warrant forces Willop to take flight, and the story winds down to its surprise ending.
Were it not for Stout's spare, clean style, which allows him to sketch characters largely through action and dialogue, the narrative would barely carry itself. The kindly, but not very inquiring white sheriff and his vengeful, dim-witted deputy are familiar enough Southern stereotypes--as are most of the characters from the 1940s era. The book's dramatic potential is vested in the next generation--Sheriff Hiram Stoker's son, Bill, who has become a state police captain, and reporter/investigator Willop.
The problem here is that author Stout doesn't quite grasp the ironies of the current era of Southern life--where former enemies have begun to rely on one another, and past hatreds are suppressed but not forgotten. Willop and the younger Stoker bump up against one another in a friendly, casual fashion that belies the seriousness of the story. Willop eventually does find the girls' real killer, who, of course, is white. But the too predictable unraveling of the truth keeps the novel from succeeding totally either as a psychological study of the New South or as a simple murder mystery.
By not showing how history haunts today's heroes, as Faulkner might have done, the author ends up almost trivializing his own story. He turns it into one more entry in the "true crime" sweepstakes when, in potential, it could be much more than that. For the attempt to clear up past injustices and pardon the wrongly convicted is, in fact, a compelling problem that the South has yet to address. Many Linus Braggs went to the chair for crimes they never committed.
Stout seems unaware of what a burden these injustices are today for the innocent children of the old segregationist lawmakers and peacekeepers. The South is catching its breath now--but it doesn't pretend to have come to grips with its own recent history yet.
The fact that in Memphis many whites and a few blacks have opposed turning the Lorraine Motel--where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated--into a civil rights museum is a small reminder of just how painful the past is for the present generation. Stout touches on this yearning to forget without fully exploring it. If he had, his novel, to take nothing away from the undeniable effectiveness of its plot and style, would have been the better for it.