In Sweetbitter, the lovely and ambitious first novel by acclaimed poet and short fiction writer Reginald Gibbons, early 20th-century Texas comes to vivid, violent life. The town of Three Rivers in rural East Texas is a harsh world where white men rule by lynch mob and black families carve out meager existences in decrepit shacks at the edge of town; a world where white girls are taught to be proper Christian women with Victorian-style moral pedigrees who will grow up to toe the line of racial segregation and prejudice; a world forged by a history of antagonism and hatred between the okwa natolo people (white race) and the chahtah people (the Choctaw tribes). Into this world walks Reuben Sweetbitter, a “crazy-mad, orphan-part-Indian part-white part-just-a-man I hope,” whose skin is neither black nor white but “something akin to the color of red clay.” A wanderer since the loss of his mother, who died while she and a young Reuben fled a life of indentured servitude, he intentionally travels with few possessions and makes few emotional attachments.
In 1910 he is waylaid by a nearly fatal snakebite and temporarily taken in by a generous black family. He stays on for millwork in Three Rivers, where he keeps a calculated distance from black and white alike. Several white workers there tolerate Reuben only to seek out opportunities to degrade him-opportunities he must successfully manage if he is to avoid serious trouble. They introduce him to Martha Clarke, who is not only “white-skinned as the moon,” but also the eldest daughter of a well-respected Three Rivers businessman and Methodist deacon. The first time Reuben hears Martha say his name out loud, the first time Martha looks into Reuben’s “eyes of a different character,” the two are irrevocably smitten. Their first meeting is marked by the embarrassment Reuben endures as his “friends” taunt him; it is also marked by the Romeo and Juliet-like intensity of love at first sight.
This potent mix of humiliation and exaltation defines the relationship between these two young people from radically different worlds. Until he falls in love with Martha, Reuben seeks comfort in his transient existence:
When he was alone, rambling, living as he cared, he was only who he took himself to be, who he felt he was. But as soon as he met another person then he was something, some thing made apparent only by the fact that he was different from the other person-darker, or lighter, of skin, and in so many other ways different.
With “her warm skin like some smoothness unknown on this earth,” Martha does represent a new and exciting world to Reuben, a world he chooses instead of a life of destitution, a life in which he seems always to be “between two towns, walking.”
Although they are forbidden to one another, Reuben and Martha continue to meet in secret once, twice, and then habitually, followed by a sense of “anxiousness and desire, growing together like twined vines.” Their love affair is bound by mutual neediness and restlessness: Martha longs to escape the rigid morality of her family, and Reuben needs Martha’s touch and presence because both, until now, have been off-limits to him. At the heart of the novel is a Shakespearean story of obsessive, all-consuming, reckless, adolescent love-the most intense, tempestuous, unrealistic, and mutable kind of love, and the only love possible for Reuben and Martha in Three Rivers.
Only through physical contact are they lifted to a place without color: “the spell was a power of the breathing body and the living spirit … the world was not as it was, after all.” And yet the world sees their union as an abomination, an impossibility. Because their relationship flies in the face of everything they have learned about what is proper and decent, they sever all hope for a safe return to their separate worlds. This danger is exacerbated by the fact that Reuben witnesses a young black man brutally dragged to his hanging death. As race riots in neighboring towns escalate, newspapers exclaim: “East Texas is wonderful, West Texas is wonderful and South Texas is wonderful. The whole state is the nearest approach out of doors to the garden of Eden.” Not so for Martha and Reuben, who must flee in order to avoid capture and worse.
If love is at the heart of the story, then at its root is the violence implicit in that forbidden love, built as it is in early 20th-century Texas, on a racist foundation. Although Reuben has lived “a kind of life between white and black,” as a person of color he must deal with the accompanying danger and despair. Meanwhile, as she gazes out the window of her comfortable middle-class home, Martha romanticizes what she imagines to be Reuben’s exotic life, which in reality is one of abject poverty. In her father’s books, she learns that “having killed off and driven away the Indians was a point of Texas pride.” Reuben is physically accessible, yet emotionally mysterious to her, a combination she finds intoxicating. In him she sees an opportunity to escape and live out a fantasy of forbidden love. “With her avid appetite for him; for all there was to know about him,” she asks endless questions: “Did you ever wear your hair long…like an Indian?” All this in a shameful, but naÃ¯ve attempt to document Reuben, write him down, keep him as one would keep a trinket or a thing.
It is in their escape and subsequent years of hiding that the violence of their relationship becomes suffocating: “Somehow there was a life they had not decided to create but which was creating them.” In such an unmoored place, where their relationship has no social credibility and no power, Martha remains yoked to the regrets of her past, often disappearing into “the lightlessness” of depression, while Reuben looks nervously ahead to a vague and insubstantial future. Each needs the relationship to survive, yet neither can fully live within such a relationship. Martha is unhappy, “living in a horribly dirty gray place surrounded by niggers, living with them. … She wanted to be home. She wanted never to go home again.”
She thinks of Reuben as white-but-different, when in all eyes but hers, he is black only because he is not white. Although he wants desperately to make a life with Martha, he also feels “tender pity” for her, mixed with toxic resentment that “he is a man of the world of nothing.” As such, he can give her little that she might recognize as a gift, apart from his devotion, and this he gives unreservedly to the point of sacrificing his own sense of self and physical safety. In a society made deficient by hatred and prejudice, Reuben and Martha cannot draw a clear distinction between love and need.
A former editor of TriQuarterly and current chair of the English Department at Northwestern University, Gibbons was born in Houston and lived in Texas until he was 18. In March, his collection It’s Time (LSU Press, 2002) was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ annual prize for best book of poetry. Sweetbitter was first published by Broken Moon Press in 1994, and was reprinted in paperback this spring by LSU Press. Its tragic story is both complex and credible. Reuben and Martha love one another with the strange mix of stubborn tenacity and flippant weightlessness that is a defining feature of immature, adolescent love; the novel has many storytelling layers. Gibbons, who uses unique and almost dream-like metaphors and a choppy, straightforward prose style, blends Biblical references, Native American legend, and excerpts from historical events to create the texture of a long-ago world. With the grace and precision of a poet who chooses words wisely and well, he juggles all of these potentially overwhelming factors, although not always with ease. Whenever the book runs for pages without a scrap of dialogue between characters, the prose begins to feel expository. Although nobody could argue with his precise evocation of the hot, weedy, buggy, and dangerous, but beautiful Texas landscape where he grew up, these scenes are slightly tedious. Long monologues delivered by characters who appear only once in the novel feel out of place and even didactic. In the hands of such a capable writer, however, we can still enjoy these occasional lapses.
Apart from the gripping love story and the fully imagined world of rural Texas in 1910, what is most interesting about Sweetbitter is Gibbons’ use of the narrative structure to make clear the destructive force of racist attitudes and beliefs as they are enshrined in memory. Memory is a living force, a powerful vehicle: “If memory is an echo of what was,” he writes, “it is also a sound that is different from the sound that started it.” Much of what Reuben remembers about his aboriginal past comes to him in dream sequences-half-remembered legends and incomplete stories passed down from his mother, a forgotten uncle, and a long-dead grandparent who spoke a native tongue Reuben has only once or twice spoken aloud. These moments have the quality of being viewed underwater-choppy, incomplete, and blended seamlessly into the novel. The abrupt, unexplained transitions between the novel’s forward action and the characters’ memories illustrate how the present cannot advance without the intrusion of the past. Memory, collective and individual, is the fluid link between history and possibility. This perhaps is racism’s most violent legacy, and it is this undercurrent-tangibly and just below the surface of the characters’ words and actions-that upholds the narrative’s emotional tension.
Gibbons uses an interracial love story as a touchstone to show the great deficiencies that an unjust society creates. In Three Rivers and other towns like it, places replete with the kind of inhuman acts only humans are capable of, the possibilities for love and redemption are drained from the world. His empathy for such a world and the lovers who suffer and fight in it is tangible as well, and readers will mourn for both. Reuben’s fate at the end of the book offers a clear snapshot of the power of racism to degrade and destroy. Redemption, when offered, can only be limited and partial. Sweetbitter lifts readers to a place both terrible and beautiful in its intensity and contradictions, and this feeling is compounded as the reader realizes that the lost world the author so powerfully evokes isn’t as lost or as distant as we’d like to believe.
Observer intern Emily Rapp is working on a novel set in Ireland.