Sunday, October 11, 2009

By William Littlejohn
Washington Writers Publishing House, $15.95, 315 pages

Toward the end of William Littlejohn’s provocative novel, “Calvin,” 11-year-old Billy Smithson has a feeling of foreboding about the comfortable home where he has been living with his grandfather, his grandfather’s young wife, Dot and their son, his uncle and playmate, TJ. “Something had gone wrong here in Papa Bacon’s house,” Billy muses. “Just what he didn’t know. But what he did know was that something bad was going to happen.”

Billy is right. Something is wrong in the comfortable Bacon household. Indeed, something is wrong in the small town of Athena, S.C. in the early days of World War II, where the story takes place, and that something is the powerful subtext of this debut novel, winner of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Award for 2009.

Billy’s story involves a daunting number of characters, most of them family — his adored father, Sonny, away at the hospital suffering from a “mysterious sickness that nobody would ever talk about”; his unpredictable mother, Elizabeth, “beautiful in a careless, spendthrift way” ; Gerry, his insecure stepmother; Kallie, the black cook who provides the comfort and security of his life; his cat Zero and his playmates, Jefferson and Cotton.

After his mother’s abrupt decision to move him to her father’s house in another town we meet Raleigh Bacon, Billy’s wealthy and powerful grandfather; Dot Jessup, Raleigh’s self-indulgent, much younger wife and their two children, Emily, who suffers a mysterious disability, and good- natured TJ; also around are Raleigh’s spinster sister Victoria to whom he turns for advice, his devious, jealous brothers Danny and Sam, and Miss Harp, the trouble-making nurse who cares for Emily.

And then there’s Calvin, the quietly powerful black servant at Raleigh Bacon’s house. When Billy comes to stay, TJ tells him, “Calvin’s a wizard”; even stranger, before agreeing to Billy’s visit, Raleigh Bacon tells his wife that, “This is Calvin’s house to run and we should speak to him. I’m sure he’ll have no objection, but it is his house.” Calvin is the cook, housekeeper and driver; he fixes everything that is broken and also does magic tricks for Billy and TJ and teaches them to fly cast.

Flashbacks fill in Calvin’s story — no daddy, dirt poor, a little schooling, picking cotton, running errands for food. His sister, Gracie, eats dirt and dies and after that Calvin runs away from his occasionally violent mother. Picaresque adventures almost kill him but they also land him two gold teeth and work on the railroads, first as a dishwasher, then kitchen man and, finally, assistant cook. And they bring out his inner mettle. Calvin is a survivor.

Billy takes to Calvin and soon settles into the life of his grandfather’s household. The plot proceeds at first languidly, then with increasing urgency, in chapters told in shifting voices — Raleigh Bacon’s self-assured command of his comfortable home and his position at the head of a family business and as the most important man in Athena; Dot Jessup’s frivolity and boredom, her casual sensuality and heightened awareness around Calvin; Billy’s instinctive mistrust of Dot, his slow warming to his grandfather, his longing for his father; and Calvin, the trusted, indispensable servant in the Bacon home who has become Raleigh’s friend and fishing buddy yet keeps a web of privacy around himself.

He causes eyebrows to raise in town because he has his own car, a Chevrolet, and refuses to live in the Bacon house, preferring his own small cabin in the woods.

The look and feel of the town are captured through telling details — the decor at the church service Calvin attends, with the Deaconesses all dressed in white; the casual crudeness of the men at the barbershop or round the campfire on a hunting trip; the excitement the war brings, with the little boys asking visiting soldiers which they would rather kill, “Japs or Nazis.”

The book’s dialogue, in fact, is exceptionally vivid in part because of its liberal use of a pejorative term for black people evocative of the time and place but today so offensive it cannot be printed in this newspaper. Even Calvin uses it, as he puts the meddlesome nurse, Miss Harp, in her place. This shocks the listening Billy. “Only trashy white folks, the people who everybody in the South blamed everything on, used that word,” he thinks. “To hear it now, used this way, made the blood pop in his ears.”

The complex social dance of small-town Southern race relations in the days before the civil rights movement is the animating force of the story and, fueled by a strong current of sexual tension, drives it to its lurid climax. Hostility and condescension are pervasive but they are not the only steps to the dance — Calvin is protective of the heavy-drinking Dot Jessup despite the danger she poses to him; young visiting soldiers react to Calvin’s dignity by calling him “sir”; Billy unashamedly loves Calvin, and Raleigh considers him with respect and deep affection that border on love.

Billy’s feelings are not challenged because he is a child ,but, under the circumstances in which they live, Calvin and Raleigh’s relationship is doomed. Neither of them can step out of the persona forged from each man’s distinctive personality and society’s expectations of him.

“Calvin” is not an easy read. The characters are numerous and occasionally confusing. The plot is laden with incident, some of it described only obliquely. The language is crude. The concluding episodes border on the melodramatic.

But this is a powerful and surprisingly affirmative book. It vividly evokes a vicious social system and the way it colludes with individual weaknesses to corrupt people. It also portrays, convincingly, the innocence of childhood, the goodness of those who would protect it and the fortitude of the person who has suffered and survived. Its final sentences, describing Billy waking up on the train taking him to a new home, “watching out the window, watching the land change shape and color,” resonate with hope — for Billy and for us all.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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