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Calvin by William Littlejohn

© 2009 Washington Writers’ Publishing House,
317 pp. ISBN: 978-0-931846-92-2.

A Review by Candace Katz

The past, William Faulkner wrote, in Requiem for a Nun, is not dead. It's not even past.

He was referring clearly to his own point of view and to that of other Southern writers, who with love and hate, anguish and self justification, need to gnaw on the bones of their early lives until there is only whiteness left. The first novel Calvin by William Littlejohn is another installment in this obsessive restirring of the thick racist soup that nourishes such narratives.

At its best, the novel is a meticulous and sensuous evocation a boy's growing up in a traditionally loopy Southern family, with its patrician airs, family secrets, bad marriages from the wrong side of the tracks, madness and commitment to a state mental institution, alcoholism, frigidity, morbid obesity, nymphomania, and hideous family feuds. The memories of the boy Billy, and a range of other major characters, are bright and compelling and immediate somewhat belying the carefully chosen black and white photograph on the book cover, which is too small for the naked eye to make out the details. Which past is more real after all? Is it in front of us or just out of sight?

The author William Littlejohn makes us believe in the early morning house sounds and kitchen smells from this boyhood and the crispness of fried chicken, the sweetness of corn bread, and the coolness of buttermilk. In this way, the novel helps us cherish and evoke all of the memories of our own lost youth so fresh and compelling and sweet. The prose of this novel is carefully honed; one feels the deep commitment of the author to authenticity and truth telling--even about the insidious evils of racism. He demands credit for understanding the nuances of how and with what variation each character pronounces the n word and he does not flinch from telling the most sordid details of this past.

Yes, these long days of summer are set against the harsh world (as listed above) and particularly the brutal world of southern racism of this pre World War II era. By calling the novel Calvin, the author seems to privilege this character, the perfect African American servant, and his position as the center of the book or at least the moral center of the book, but sadly, after a few chapters helping us to understand Calvin from his own perspective and through his experiences in the world, we see Calvin only as the consummate loyal servant, set against not his own life, but against the lives of his white bosses. Calvin is respected and he is rumored to brilliant at cards to have even wizarding powers, but we see little of that, and we see little from his perspective. Clearly the tradition lives from Gunga Din, to Jeeves, to Mary Poppins and Amelia Bedelia, of the clever and good servant who has no personal life, and when is not needed any more goes off to help--with no ill will--another privileged but benighted family, either floating away on her umbrella like M. Poppins or like Jeeves, gliding and shimmering out of the room in a respectful hush. Is this the homage we pay to servitude? (To be fair, it is not clear which path Calvin will choose next.)

More interesting, to me, was the character of Raleigh Bacon, the family patriarch, struggling to do right by his own code--as he keeps defining it, stitching together pieces of lore, values, education, morality, and propriety that society seems endlessly to demand. Whereas his goodness is a struggle, and ultimate failure, Calvin's comes effortlessly and he is well able to bear the cost of it to himself.

Can the South actually be like this? Or is it only in literary memory? Did I forget to say that Calvin also includes arson--though differently motivated than in "Barn Burning;" a Deliverance moment during a hunting trip; a Little Foxes family feud over keeping money up with the times; and, yes, at the climax, the horrible nearly unspeakable threat of miscegenation?

It is true that Professor Henry Louis Gates was recently arrested in his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but can't we move on from this love/hate relationship with our sordid Southern past? Can't we stop nourishing both the pleasure/pain/relief that comes from cutting ourselves and enjoying it?

Candace Katz serves as Deputy Director of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University and a JD from Georgetown University. She is the author of Schaeffer Brown's Detective Fundamentals.
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