Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Leaving Tuscaloosa by Walter Bennett

Cover of Leaving Tuscaloosa, a finalist in the Bellwether competition



Leaving Tuscaloosa.  Walter Bennett.  Fuze publishing Co.  313 pages. Trade paper: $16.95.  ISBN 978-0-9849908-3-2; e-book, $9.99.  978-0-9849908-2-5.  Note: A percentage of the book’s sales will go to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham and the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, if ordered directly from Fuze Publishing.  Publication date:  October 1, 2012.

Walter Bennett’s debut novel makes me think of Henry James’s words about art: “In art what is merely stated is not presented; what is not presented is not vivid; what is not vivid is not represented, and what is not represented is not art.”
We may think we want to go back fifty years to the Deep South in 1962, when the Civil Rights Movement was being born.  But are we prepared to live through those early days in the lives of two young men, one black, one white, in the small town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in a fully vivid, visceral way, no holds barred?  Have we the guts to experience the forces of the white power structure as it uses all its weapons, both in the hands of the Sheriff and of the Klan, to find and kill a black man who dared to shoot a deputy sent to hassle him for living with a white woman?
I found this book so painful, I had to put it down sometimes.  Lee Smith calls it: “deeply moving, disturbing, haunting, and important.”  It is those things.  None of the erotic scenes or the violence engendered by hate are there for their own sake or to bait the reader to keep reading.  They are part of our entry into the world lived in by two teenagers on the edge of manhood.  You will not be able to forget these scenes.  Without the explicit physical details, as in Homer’s Iliad, we wouldn’t experience first hand this particular “war” or the erotic passion that it sets off.
Richeboux Branscomb is unable to imagine his own future.  His moral ambivalence leads him to hang around with his long-time school friends who drive to the black part of town, Cherry Town, to throw eggs at anyone they might see.  They press Richeboux into being the egg-thrower.  He used to pitch on the high school baseball team until he threw a fast ball that seriously injured another player.  He throws the egg and hits a leading citizen of Cherry Town, the black preacher, John Folsom Gryce.  To the boys’ surprise, Gryce runs after their car with a piece of iron pipe and throws it at them.  The running and Gryce’s long held back rage, released now, sets off a heart attack.  As the boys finally drive away, Gryce falls on the street and dies.
Here begins the irony.  The boys know that, despite being responsible for Gryce’s death, they won’t be arrested or punished for murder.  Another murder happens the same night.  Acee Waite’s brother, Raiford, who is already working in the Civil Rights Movement along with a white woman from Up North, when the sheriff’s deputy comes to hassle him about it, shoots and kills him.
Acee’s mama sends for him, but his boss at the Red Elephant Grill won’t let Acee leave his job frying burgers for white folks.  Acee leaves anyway, despite the boss’s roughing him up for “talking back” and firing him.
In Richeboux we have a young man, wholly ambivalent.  Which of the two women does he love: a young Jewish woman named Mem or his high school English teacher?  Or does he love either one?  What should he do with his life?  He represses his guilt about hitting Gryce with the egg, but his guilt doesn’t go away, just as his guilt for hurting the boy on the other baseball team hasn’t gone away.
Acee Waite, on the other hand, feels responsible in two directions: to his mother and his brother, now a fugitive from the law, but he also feels responsible to himself, his art, and his own future.  Gryce convinced him he had a leading role to play for his people.  He loves and is loved by Resa Robinson.  In the midst of the hate with which his race is surrounded, that love is a point of stability and security.  He decides he has to help his brother, risky as that is and as much as he disagrees with the approach his brother is taking to right the wrongs of his people.
Both lead characters wrestle with a terrible moral struggle, each in an untenable situation.  There is no way to do it “all” right.  The characters come off the page.  The scenes are painfully memorable.  Leaving Tuscaloosa recreates a time and a place that is an integral part, a symbolic part, of our American history in a nearly unbearable way.
Further irony is the reality that Richeboux and Acee played together as children until Richeboux’s father stopped them from seeing each other.
This novel was a 2010 finalist for the Bellwether Prize, a nation-wide competition founded and administered by Barbara Kingsolver for unpublished narratives that focus on issues of social change.

In addition to ordering from Fuze Publishing,, you can also order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or attend Walter’s reading at Fly Leaf Books in Chapel Hill, at 7 PM on Thursday, September 27.


Walter Bennett is a writer and former lawyer, judge, and law professor, who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  He has published essays and short fiction in both print and on-line journals, plus numerous articles on the legal profession and one highly acclaimed book: The Lawyer’s Myth: Reviving Ideals in the Legal Profession (University of Chicago Press, 2001).  He is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a powerful novel, one that should be read because younger people aren't aware of how bad it was then, but a book like this will make them realized the horrible unfairness and brutality of that time.