Outside the Gates

Haley, Texas, 1959

Last summer, in a provocative essay published in Harper’s magazine, the novelist Russell Banks took contemporary fiction writers to task on the issue of race. American literature, he argued, must tell the entwined stories of its multi-racial history, or risk lodging itself in “high-walled narrative ghettos”–separate storytelling in which white writers write for and about white people, while fiction by people of color is shelved and marketed separately.

“Already we can see white writers in America getting whiter, as it were,” wrote the author of Continental Drift and The Sweet Hereafter, “especially among the youngest generation of novelists and story writers, who appear increasingly to live in the literary equivalent of a racially segregated, gated community.”

But could the problem be that Banks himself has blinders on? For outside the sphere of a few fashionable writers, past the stylistic pyrotechnics of Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace, there are indeed lesser-known white writers attempting to make sense–or at least stories–out of the country’s racially complicated past.

In Haley, Texas, 1959, Donley Watt looks back, without nostalgia, at his childhood in East Texas. Watt, who now lives in San Antonio, grew up in East Texas and worked in the oil business before coming to writing late in life. In Haley, Texas, 1959, he has written two novellas–one explicitly autobiographical, in which the main character shares the author’s name, and one fictionalized.

The first piece, Seven Days Working, chronicles a week in the life of a young boy whose father has given him an impossible chore: to clear, in seven days, 70 acres chock-full of second-growth mesquite trees. Camping out by himself, with the dawning realization that he will never complete the task on time, the young Donley vacillates among anger, loneliness, and self-satisfaction. He reflects on his family: his hardworking, frustrated parents, his studious sister, his troubled uncles. And, perhaps inevitably, he realizes that he will one day have to leave his small East Texas town. He doesn’t like the mesquite-filled pasture, but “there was no other place I wanted to be. Home would be okay for supper and a shower, but after that I would be as stuck there as I was here.”

In Seven Days Working, Watt makes reference to the violence that surrounds the boy, and his inability to overcome it. First Donley remembers a rabbit that he hunted and wounded but was too cowardly to finish off. Later he remembers being invited to go “nigger knockin’,” a brutal sport in which a black man walking home in the dark is assaulted by a two-by-four sticking out the window of a passing car. Nothing happens the night Donley goes along, but he nonetheless recognizes his own moral failure: “You taste your own shit and live in shame; you walk away from a rabbit you mortally wound; you cringe at brutal, racial ‘sport,’ but don’t speak out, don’t walk away.”

This horrifying activity is given larger fictional treatment in the second novella, Haley, Texas, 1959. Here a preacher’s son named Damon takes off for the evening with his older cousin Farris and his friends. This time they do find a man walking alone down a country road–a man with a limp, too crippled and perhaps too drunk to take notice and run–and they knock him down, killing him. The boy’s reaction is shock: “Damon looked over at Farris, pleading for this not to really have happened. He wished for this to be a game, one set up to scare the Preacher’s Boy. But one glance at Farris, his face white, drawn tight in the dashlight glow, and Damon knew this was no game. Still Farris forced a shaky grin. ‘One less nigger, boys.'”

The murder takes place in the opening paragraphs, and the rest of the story deals with its terrible consequences: for Damon, for the town’s black community, and finally for Wallace, Damon’s father, who tries unsuccessfully to use the murder as an opportunity for healing.

By the end of the novella, Wallace is on the run–from the town of Haley as well as from his own failures as a father, husband, and preacher.

Watt’s style can be awkward and stilted at times, especially at the beginning of Haley, Texas, 1959, when his fondness for compound adjectives (pushed-up, rolled-tight, green-winged, turned-over) interferes with the story he is trying to tell. What’s more, his story of a sensitive young man’s coming of age in a brutal world verges on the predictable. Still, he has a strong narrative sense and a knack for creating sympathetic characters. His ear for emotional nuance–the ways people can both support and undercut each other at times of trouble–is right on target. And he easily evokes, in a few simple sentences, an entire place and time:

“And Damon suddenly could smell the store, the wood smoke from the pot-bellied stove, the rotting heads of iceberg lettuce, the raw beef and pork and chickens and the sawdust on the floor behind the meat counter. On a dismal night like this, old man Tyner would be totaling up the day’s measly charges, counting the few worn and rumpled bills he had taken in, shutting the place down.”

In bringing together the stories of white, black, and native peoples as they live through a shared time, Fire in Beulah goes beyond Haley, Texas, 1959, and moves well out of any narrative ghetto. Rilla Askew–a native of Oklahoma whose first novel, The Mercy Seat, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award–paints a lurid, almost Gothic, picture of Oklahoma in the 1920s. “For a state as young as this one–hardly thirteen years old in 1920–Oklahoma had an extraordinarily mythic sense of its character,” she says by way of introduction, and goes on to expose the dark underside of that myth.

The novel centers on two very different women. The first is Althea Dedmeyer, a white woman who has risen out of hardscrabble poverty to marry a rich oilman in Tulsa. Shallow and high-strung, Althea’s obnoxiousness is the very thing that has allowed her to leave her past behind; “a woman as self-absorbed as Althea,” Askew writes, “held freedoms others might never win.” The second woman is Graceful Whiteside, Althea’s black maid, whose outward composure masks a life of great difficulty and a passionate attachment to her close-knit family.

Graceful alternately irritates and fascinates Althea, who turns to her, without precisely knowing why, whenever she is upset. This brittle, tenuous connection gradually deepens as the novel follows the two women and their extended families through a series of increasingly terrible events. Askew sets the stage by describing the oil rush in Tulsa, where white people outdo each other in lavish spending on mansions, clothes, and cars. Tulsa also has a taste for spectacle in the form of lynchings, at which huge crowds appear, clamoring to take home pieces of rope as souvenirs.

Violence escalates to an awful climax: the race riots of 1921, in which white people burn and loot the prosperous black section of Greenwood, kill hundreds of black people, and herd others up like so much cattle. Askew weaves together several narrations in order to map the different racial communities and show the event from multiple perspectives. Often when historical novels fail it is because their characters act more like representative types than individuals, losing their humanity as they maneuver like chess pieces across a board of actual historical events. But the characters in Fire in Beulah maintain their credibility as real people. In some ways they are evil; they are also ignorant, proud, victimized, and confused.

Fire in Beulah charts all these attitudes in one scene, when four people who share the same language could not be any further apart in their understanding of what is happening. Prior to the riots, Althea, hysterical, walks to Greenwood in search of Graceful, as if the sight of Graceful could calm her nerves and soothe her soul. Unable to find her, Althea instead encounters the local newspaper editor and doctor, who cannot imagine what she is doing there. It does not occur to the men that Althea genuinely wants to see Graceful; it does not occur to Althea that these men might, with good reason, be suspicious of her behavior:

Furthest of all from her imagining was the living, breathing memory of the men and women before her, who, for their part, couldn’t dream of the ignorance of the disheveled white woman standing in the middle of the kitchen floor.

By the end of her beautifully written novel, Askew endows Althea with greater humanity and regard for Graceful, within the limits of her character and the reality of race relations in 1921. These limits, Askew makes clear, are severe; even “regret is not repentance, and that is what we have not seen in Beulah, repentance that owns its part–that is, like the Word tells us, at once sorrow and self-knowledge and a changing of the mind.” Askew’s writing is both forcefully ambitious and deeply, angrily moral, and her book is an important accomplishment.

Both Fire in Beulah and Haley, Texas, 1959 reach back into the past, to bring the troubled facts of our history to light. It remains for other writers to tell the ongoing story, into the present day.

Alix Ohlin is an M.F.A. candidate at U.T.’s Michener Center for Writers.

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Published at 12:00 am CST