It's 1963 in the sleepy town of Greenville, S.C., and 10-year-old Jeru Lamb has more than his share of problems. His beloved older brother, Mitchell, has been killed by an angry German shepherd; grief has driven his mother, Muriel, to Christian Science and to dreamy, dopey pronouncements like "Death is the lie of life." Jeru's father, Warren, has retreated to the basement, where he is determinedly typing a novel and ignoring his family. Muriel is pregnant again; she regards this as divine, whereas Warren considers it a disaster. A very smart girl named Norma Jones shows up in Jeru's fifth-grade class and calmly reveals that she is his illegitimate half-sister.
No wonder Jeru is reading "Hiroshima" and drowning in apocalyptic visions of his own.
Jeru, who narrates Tommy Hays' new novel "In the Family Way," is baffled by many things. Chief among them is the curious way in which Mitchell's death has made his family simultaneously too weighty and too light: "They had become fragile presences who meant too much." He isn't sure if he's to blame for the accident--did he trip his brother, or run away when the dog attacked?--but he figures that somehow, some way, he must be guilty: "I would never be certain exactly what happened, but in . . . the version I felt I must believe, I presented the worst of me, in case it was the truth." And like children everywhere, Jeru is a master at converting world-historical events into familial ones: When President Kennedy is assassinated, he notes with satisfaction, "Now the entire nation knew how we felt. Now we weren't so conspicuous."
What does not baffle Jeru is the stark racial segregation of his town: "We lived in a cleanly divided world, and it had not occurred to me that anyone would want it any other way." Like many white Southern children of his era, he is raised by his family's black maid, Della, who is "less a keeper of the house than a keeper of the family." It is not Jeru but his prejudiced, elderly Uncle Clem who undergoes a transformation in the course of this novel: One night Clem dreams that Jesus has "skin black as soot," and he swiftly, correctly understands that this revelation "ain't the best of news for my heavenly prospects."
This is a gentle book with some very nice touches. Hays captures, for instance, the enormous, even terrifying presence that teachers can assume in the life of a child (Jeru's personal nightmare, Miss Hawkins, declares, "Imagination has its place, and it is not in my classroom"). At times, however, it is too gentle, as if the author were afraid of his characters, or of the conflicts he has created between them. Jeru and Norma's collusion in keeping the truth of her birth secret from Muriel veers on the unbelievable; even less credible is Warren's reaction when Jeru burns the (only) copy of his manuscript.
But the real problem with "In the Family Way" is its tone. The novel is written in the plaintive voice of a child: "An adult, by definition, was someone who kept things from children," Jeru observes at one point--and later he muses: "Adults were never as angry or hurt or upset as I expected, as if they had something else in them to fall back on." These are precisely the kinds of things no child would ever say, and as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is not a very specific 10-year-old Jeru, but some far hazier adult incarnation, who is telling us his tale--not as it unfolds, but as he remembers it.
Other writers--most notably Harper Lee in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (a novel that, one suspects, strongly influenced Hays)--have used this technique. But Hays' Jeru Lamb never achieves the pitch-perfect clarity--not to mention the endearing spunkiness--of Lee's Scout Finch. His book is like water to her wine.