The tongue seeks the aching tooth, the child’s hand the irritable scar, the tortured often the tormentor, the prodigal son the abandoned home, the criminal the scene of the crime. Novelists, though, are advised to move on after spilling their autobiographical guts in a first book and urge their imaginations to wallow in other miseries. Few evoke characters deserving of return tickets, and fewer yet the ability to tell the same stories differently, not only from book to book, but from chapter to chapter, page to page.
Dale Peck managed such obsessive acts with his first two books, the harshly elegiac “Martin and John” and then, still in his 20s, the denser “The Law of Enclosures,” again full of various Martins and Johns in a self-revealing chronicle of the AIDS age. Tossed with dark scraps of Peck’s family history for grim measure, “Law” swung feverishly between a gay New York nether world and a King Kullen-land of Lincoln Logs and childhood memories stashed in trailer-park cubbyholes, of unbidden lust, as well as the promise that true love doesn’t strike only according to the sanctions of Middle America.
More specifically, of Kansas--where Peck is from and which, apparently unfinished with compulsively revisiting the places and pasts of his earlier fiction, he goes back to once more in “Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye” with an emotional vengeance, dramatic breadth and observant fervency that brings his every gift to fruition. Conceivably the third installment of a trilogy, it stands, too, as a saga on its own. Because Peck is a savvy stickler for the zeitgeist, he spares us tired Oz allusions--except to affirm that his home state is the stranger realm by far. He ferociously invokes instead the tattered remnants of a history containing John Brown, black homesteaders and the bitter legacies of civil strife and racial hatred that have also cropped up recently in books by Russell Banks, Jane Smiley and Toni Morrison.
And here’s what struck me: In so splendidly capping his preceding efforts with this work, Peck has actually written the novel Morrison’s “Paradise” should have been. Their plots, historical interests and meta-fictional calisthenics are eerily similar, but where “Paradise” is a novel in two unintegrated parts hastily sketched out and never filled in, “Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye” takes the idea of a Negro town straining against changes and does it justice. Indeed, Morrison set herself an easier task opposing her pseudo-feminist commune to an Exoduster town than Peck does introducing his gay sophisticates into the hidebound societies of black Galatia and white Galatea, the mutually hostile hamlets of his story, but it’s Morrison’s performance--especially in comparison with Peck’s--that disappoints.
As some might say, this white boy can write: Black characters are drawn as well as the white ones are, and blame for the destructive tensions between them is deposited at human nature’s door. Not that the will to enslave, dominate, abuse and scapegoat hasn’t played itself out in American culture most vividly in race relations, and Peck explores its results for his psychotically divided population in horrifying detail. But he stealthily takes as his primers the Bible, the Odyssey, Virgil, countless fairy tales and, OK, “The Wizard of Oz” so that his highly particular people and occurrences are textured by the woof of the universal and the warp of all times.
The famous writer Colin Nieman and his young boyfriend, Justin Time--whose connection to Peck’s Martin and John is only one of the novel’s mysteries asking to be solved--light out for the flatlands of Kansas when the tally of AIDS deaths in their thoroughly New York lives hovers near 500; they’re taken in (in both senses of the word) by a well-known artist of their distant acquaintance, Wade Painter, and his lover, the beautiful, sad black hustler Reginald Packman, or, as he has rechristened himself, Divine. That sorrowfulness is a quality Divine would prefer not to claim, hiding behind vamping and jokes: “the scar of vanity was etched into every one of his features,” and when he sleeps, “only his penis was hidden, beneath his body, and his hands . . . beneath the pillow, and when I asked him why . . . he said, ‘God don’t like to look down on the idle and unemployed.’ ” It’s a habit of subterfuge and self-delusion endemic to the stuffy, hypocritical Galatia-Galatea from which he thinks he stands apart, just as the rampant acts of possession practiced there are just another form of the slavery the town’s black settlers believed they had left behind.
Scratch beneath the subterfuge and you discover secrets, of which Colin and Justin’s new abode has a surfeit. One may be a murder; another is incest. A furtive homosexuality haunts some, a lynching many more, and there’s the communal secret blacks keep from whites, which is simply their daily, private, individualized lives. It has always taken detective work to read Peck’s fiction, and despite the airing of a dirty-laundry list of extreme transgressions, it is no less true in this novel.
The signposts he chooses to clear some of the way are names: Divine, Painter and Justin, Nieman (German for “no one”), Abraham Greeving, Rosetta Stone, Noah Deacon, Cadavera County, Lifebuoy (as in soap) and architecture, whether the antiseptically geometric house Wade builds, the giant ark Deacon erects, or the old limestone mansion coveted by the town’s plantation-mistress wannabe. They stand out visually and symbolically against a dead-pan landscape given to spontaneous combustion of madness, violence and fire itself, which lingers for years in a smoky miasma none too distinguishable from the brimstone visions of the Rev. Greeving, the resident black leader who named his daughter after W.E.B. Du Bois. At least that’s what he proffers to ordinary sinners: For those marked for immediate punishment, he and Peck have more gruesome surprises in mind.
At one point, Justin wreaks his own brand of revenge by cutting up the novel Colin has been working on for 15 years, creating a blizzard of words as he launches the tiny scraps into the air. “Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye” starts out as a storm almost as scattered and blinding. It chills. That it falls ultimately into a pattern beautiful, affecting and rational strongly proves Peck’s mastery as a writer.