- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Richard Marius
Knopf, $26.95, 592 pages

Richard Marius was born and raised in east Tennessee, and among his books are three novels laid in that part of the upper South "The Coming of the Rain," "After the War," and, finally, "An Affair of Honor." Marius was a distinguished historian and biographer in addition to being a splendid novelist, and his early death was a loss to Southern letters. The novelists who celebrate the Southern Piedmont Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, Richard Marius seem to die young.
Into "An Affair of Honor," which would be the last of his four novels, Marius poured everything he knew about fiction, politics, the law, the mountains of Tennessee, small Southern towns, the Great Depression, World War II, religion, and a good deal more, especially fallen human nature. This is a long book about a life in a small town near Knoxville and Gatlinburg. It begins in the early 1930s, and the principal action ends in the mid-1950s; but the aftermath of the novel takes its characters and us, its readers, down to the mid-1990s, 40 years after the trial that stands at the novel's center.
There are many characters who come to life, and each has his or her story. Chief among them is Charles Alexander, whose life we follow from the time he is a college student until he is on the point of retiring from the faculty at Harvard University. We learn of Charles' family, including his defective older brother, his younger brother, and their probable half-brother; and Charles' father, Paul Alexander, is himself an important actor in this complex drama.
The other family whose history Marius limns is named Kirby. This clan is headed by a remarkable man named Roy, a man who epitomizes the code of the natives living in Appalachia. Marius knew the folkways of these hardy and independent people, and he sympathized thoroughly with them. Roy Kirby, like Paul Alexander, has only sons by a wife who dies in middle age of cancer. The Kirbys are hard and manly, but there is a cold murderous streak in them, especially in the father; and the action turns on that violent element in the family's nature.
"An Affair of Honor" is rife with killing, even if we set aside the violent deaths that occur in the Philippines and France during World war II. The first killing involves a foolish petty bureaucrat named Hamilton who is working for the Roosevelt administration and who, in trying to drive the Kirbys off their land, more than earns Roy Kirby's enmity. As the sheriff later thinks, from that time on Hamilton (whose first name we never learn), is a dead man.
But first Mr. Kirby goes to see Sheriff Cate about the national park being created in the Smokies. The sheriff gives his version of Hamilton's explanation that the national park is "going to be the greatest thing it ever was for fat city ladies and cripples and anybody else that can't walk. All they have to do is get somebody to drive them up that road, and they can see more bears than Daniel Boone seen in a month." Kirby responds: "He wants to run me and my folks off my farm so fat city ladies can look at bears out their car windows?" Cate replies: "That's about the size of it."
Humor, sometimes rollicking, sometimes subtle, punctuates the novel, even at its darkest. Later, even when we know that Hamilton is dead, we laugh at him when we hear his supervisor say to Sheriff Cate: "That dumb son of a bitch did not have nay sense to be knocked out of him. He has worked for me for six months, and if he had any sense, I'd be the first to know about it." But the novel, for all its humorous moments, is far more tragic than comic in its overall impact.
Marius, whose talent was vast and whose technical ability was almost as great, knew that the extremes of human behavior, springing usually from lust and love, generate the narratives and plots necessary to fiction. He knew that violence captures the reader as surely as it expresses the character who allows the violent impulse to run unchecked. The opening sequence of this author's first novel, "The Coming of Rain," contains a gripping description of a hanging. "An Affair of Honor" begins, in a slow but steady and sure progress, with a double murder prompted by adultery. From this point on nearly any reader is hooked and will remain so until the trial of the murderer and its immediate aftermath are over.
The author, having created a great artifice of life stories, seems loath to give up his mighty tale, and he carries it on too long, answering every question and leaving nothing mysterious. So the last 50 pages of the novel, after the series of shocking revelations that unfold in the climax at Bourbonville's principal Baptist church, are devoted to an epilogue of 50 pages, a long anticlimax. Had Richard Marius lived to see "An Affair of Honor" through the press, it probably would have been less detailed, less sprawling; but in no case would it have been a trim, well made novel.
Charles Alexander, who is a natural scholar and a dogged and compulsive seeker of the truth, especially of God as seen in any religion, is constantly reading. The novelists whom he studies include Balzac, and this novel is distinctly Balzacian. Balzac's tent contains a great circus, as Sylvia Townsend Warner observed; and "An Affair of Honor" presents a circus of human beings caught, helplessly but hopefully, in the coils of mortal circumstance. We are fascinated by this menagerie's frequent defeats and occasional triumphs and marvel at the skill of their creator, a fine novelist whose strong voice was stilled too soon.

George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, often writes about Southern literature.

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