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.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Steve Gilbert's A Lovely Indecent Departure

Cover photo of Steve Gilbert's debut novel.


A Lovely Indecent Departure.  Steven Lee Gilbert.  Create Space.  Trade paper: $12.45; e-book, $2.99.  ISBN: 978-0-9853365-0-9.  2012.  

Novels by their very nature have a moral point of view.  The reader is pulled in to identify with the hero or heroine in which the author believes and further believes that the protagonist is doing the right thing.  In this way, in his debut novel, A Lovely Indecent Departure, Steven Gilbert creates a convincing reversal: the criminal is the heroine.

Pushed beyond endurance by how her divorced husband, Evan Meade, treats her four-year-old son, Anna decides to flee with Oliver to her native Italy.  The narrative, though told in a clipped, bare style, pulls our feelings right to Anna, and subtly stirs the image of a Madonna and Child fleeing, not from a cruel Herod, but from a cruel husband/father, and leaning on the protection and help of her Italian Uncle Alfredo.

All the forces of law and order are seemingly on the side of the father: the local sheriff, the FBI, and later a hired investigator with Army Special Forces background.  Yet we know Anna was right to leave.  As in Henry James’s novels, the evil in Evan Meade is subtle in the beginning.  He won’t let four-year-old Oliver give his mother the birthday card he made in pre-school. He tells Oliver he’ll mail it, but Evan shreds it immediately.

It becomes clear that, for Evan, long before Anna flees, Oliver is his weapon in a game of power and control.  Anna knows that, in order to provide a safe, loving environment for Oliver, she must take him from his father, and yet even in Italy she has nightmares that the police will find her, take her son, and throw her in jail for kidnapping.  She also knows that it won’t be enough for Evan to get his son back.  He will have to revenge himself on her.

As a reader, I was caught up in Anna’s desperate plight.  Her difficulties continue as they always do with children thrust into new situations.  Oliver doesn’t want to go to school, learn Italian, or have a new last name.  He runs away from school.  He gets sick at school.  Nothing is easy for Anna.

The reader watches as Evan becomes increasingly desperate and Anna becomes more and more vulnerable.  Can she succeed when so much power and authority are arraigned against her and Oliver as the net closes in?  Has she the courage and confidence to continue her defiance?

This may not technically be a crime novel, but it has the same suspense as to outcome in this role-reversed plot of the good criminal trying to outwit the evil forces of law and order.

By going into the point of view of each of the major players and opening up their reasoning and how they justify their behavior, we have a ringside seat to a drama whose tensions are racheted higher and higher as we near the denouement.

An impressive debut.  I look forward to Steven Lee Gilbert’s next novel.  


Steven Lee Gilbert was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana but considers his childhood home the green, rolling foothills of East Tennessee and the southern Appalachia mountains, settlement to all sorts of interesting people, composites of which can be found throughout his writing. Most of his adulthood he’s spent in the Sandhills and Piedmont of central North Carolina, where he lives now with his wife and family. 

Steven received his B.A. in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, after which he was commissioned and served four years as an officer and paratrooper in the U.S. Army. While in school he had the pleasure of learning from Wilma Dykeman and in 2007 had the opportunity to work with Barry Hannah, both of whom greatly influenced his writing. The next year, Steven was awarded a Durham Arts Council Emerging Artist Grant for Literature. He has also received recognition for his work as a writer from the Tennessee Writers Alliance.

His work has been published in the Raleigh News & Observer, The Independent Weekly, Diabetes Health, and at He is also the author of the blog, Without Envy. A Lovely, Indecent Departure is his first novel. 

You can read more about him at

A Lovely Indecent Departure is available from Amazon and

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Community Is A Miracle

Okra and figs from August 2011.  Figs now, but not yet okra.


The Telling That Changes Everything XXV.
August 12, 2012

There’s no winning without some pluck and
persistence; some grit and humor.  Then,
when a wind comes along and lifts you, after
all that struggle, that picking yourself up again
every time you fall down, you have to trust it,
let it take you into a whole new place in your 
life and in the lives of other people, a new room 
where communion is frequent and possible,
where people love the characters you’ve 
created and hunger for the wisdom you’ve
locked into words, made alive in stories
they will search out far into the future, long 
after you are dead. 
– The Telling That Changes Everything XIV.

A small plot of land is what I have,
a good mind, a hale and hearty person,
a feeling for other people–their needs
and strengths.  Sometimes I can lift them
up when a wind bends them to the ground.
They can be demanding and cantankerous.
Then suddenly they open their petals 
to the light.  I might feel cross when
they lock me out, then melt when they
open a door.  It goes with the territory.
Call it community.  Somehow or other
I have a community of people around me
because I spun out threads and they
attached themselves to me.  Did they
have a choice?  Maybe not.  Did I?
No.  It’s the way I am.  I look in, but
I also look out and see through.  I see
souls.  The seen ones hold onto me.
Can I get my seeing into books?  Can
the way I am and the way I see travel
through my words?  I think so.  I know 
so.  It’s happening now, isn’t it?  My
life feels ordinary to me.  To see me,
my small house, crowded with boxes,
farm implements and supplies,
my computer and writing corner,
one wouldn’t think anything very 
spectacular could be happening here.
Yet day after day I witness miracles.
The unexpected and surprising are my
companions.  I’ve caught two possums
in an unbaited trap.  Despite the hard
growing season–too much heat and
erratic rain, I store jars of fruit and
packages of frozen soups and stews
for the winter.  Ultimately, it’s simple.
I live the way I want to, which means
hard work.  I reap the harvest: enough
food, enough money, good health,
a new book in print, the creatures 
who make my farming life delightful
and annoying; friends who allow me
alone time and then rejoice when I
invite them over.  Community is a
miracle I wanted, and yes, worked for.
Yet it doesn’t happen that easily.
It can’t be forced, only coaxed.
It means I forgive myself and other
people often.  It means I respect the
garden spider who set up housekeeping
among the raspberry canes, and she
respects me.  It’s the basis, the
raison d’etre of the turning, whirling
planet, if we attune ourselves and see.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Where Am I Rooted?

Last August's Zinnias on My Dining Table


The Telling That Changes Everything XXIV.
August 5, 2012

“Where are you rooted?’ I ask the zinnias
blown sideways by the last big storm and
now rising sunward.  I want the water 
to go straight to the roots.  Then I ask
myself: where am I rooted?  What is my
primary Reality that feeds and nurtures the
rest of me?  By this time I should know,
whatever storms have blown me sideways.
I’m blooming as the zinnias are.  If my
leaves wither in the hot afternoon, they
recover their firm pliancy in the cool
of the evening.  Exhausted I sleep.  Still
drugged, I rise with the light that wakes
the chicks.  Words restore my balance
and mental acuity.  Bread and tea return
desire.  I dread the labor of picking figs
until I step outside.  Then the hunt begins:
ripe but not too ripe.  The hens get those
the birds poked their beaks into.  The
chicks dash in and grab what the hens
drop until the hens learn to make a 
phalanx and keep the dropped figs
among themselves.  The chicks learn 
new tricks as do their big sisters.  I, too,
learn.  The more I fertilize and water,
the more food--more than I can gather
and preserve.  Weeds flourish, too.
Farmers face one crisis and urgency
after another: the squirrels are stealing
the peaches; a possum is stripping
the pears.  The apple trees are letting
their green fruit fall.  I can’t keep up.
Virginia creeper is climbing to the roof.
With my hands, feet, knees, and pruning
shears, shovel, baskets for fruit, and
plastic bags for the morning fig run, 
I try not to get too far behind.  Farmers
engage daily with the Reality of the
Universe.  It’s a form of war, for food,
for control of what the soil, sun, and 
water sustain. I carve daily the garden
and orchard I want, govern hens, cat, 
and dog; listen to my body and mind: 
am I overdoing it?  Need a break?  More
exercise?  What tasks get today’s time
and labor?  But what waters my soul, 
the being I have turned out to be?  
Everything.  Reality Itself.  The Created 
Order in which I am an active participant.  
My poems and novels.  My daily diary:
I take stock, assess what needs doing
in my writing and teaching lives,
on the farm, in the house, with my friends.
Reality is sun: too much, too little, or
just right.  Reality is rain: flood and drought.
Reality is the Electric Company using
herbicides under the power lines across
the street, poisoning our pollinators and
our water.  Reality is businessmen who
want to frack perfectly good farmland
and ruin its productivity, peacefulness,
and the lives of its farmers.  Reality
is people helping me both when I ask
and before I ask.  Reality is Good and
Evil.  Reality is choices.  What do I
choose today, tomorrow, and every
day as long as I have breath?  I choose
Life.  I choose the normal struggle
to write what my Muse urges and
to harvest and preserve what the farm
produces.  I also choose the extraordinary
struggle, or call it war, for the Good 
to win over the Evil, for the Earth
and its peoples to heal and to flourish;
to meet and work in mutual aid and
not go for each other’s jugulars 
because we are not the same, because
we each have a slightly different view 
of what is Real.  Harm and Healing are
twin sisters.  Which one will we 
choose as our long-term ally?