“All the Governor’s Men: A Mountain Brook Novel”
Author: Katherine Clark
Foreword by Pat Conroy
Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
Price: $29.99 (Hardcover)
Just a year ago Katherine Clark published the first of her Mountain Brook quartet: “The Headmaster’s Darlings.” There we observed life in the elite kingdom from the point of view of Norman Laney, the 500-pound bon vivant, English and art history teacher, as he manipulates students and parents alike at the exclusive private school, Brook-Haven, choosing and grooming the best of them for escape to the Ivy League or some other institution in a foreign land. This fabulous creation, Norman Laney, does not appear in “Governor’s Men” until page 78, in a cameo.
Clark writes of his entrance into a cocktail party: “Right then there was a large disturbance as if a herd of elephants had been stampeded into the room.”
It is a shame not to have more of Laney, but this is not his book.
Where “Headmaster’s Darlings” dealt mainly, and often comically, with the “upper class,” however newly-arrived, and the internal forces flowing in a private school, this book focuses on Alabama politics and the lower middle class.
“Governor’s Men” is not as tightly written as “Headmaster’s Darlings,” and some of the social/economic distinctions drawn would be known to most, but it is definitely a second “take” on Alabama society.
In “Darlings,” Clark, very much the insider, satirized the fine, all- but-invisible- to- the-untrained eye delineations in the lives, homes, décor, manners, among the one percenters. Which caterers provide refreshments for your book group matters! She examines the books, or lack of them, on the den shelves.
Like its acknowledged model, Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” however, “Governor’s Men” is serious business.
Daniel Dobbs, young idealist, has just graduated from Harvard, class of ’82, and is back in Alabama working for progressive gubernatorial candidate Aaron Osgood, from Andalusia, the hope of the future, the dragon slayer, potentially Alabama’s first New South governor. Although he is prematurely bald, Osgood shows no sign of intellectualism, so he stands a chance. Osgood is attorney general, charismatic, appropriately tall, six foot four, a shaker of hands and rememberer of names.
We see Osgood ingratiate himself with the crowd in The Bug Tussle Steakhouse outside Cullman, Wallace country. He wears a suit on a hot summer night, out of “respect” for the other diners. His suit is “ill-fitting,” and he purposely appears to be not slick, not sophisticated. He visits every table, kisses the old ladies.
Wallace, although wheelchair-bound, in pain, and mostly deaf, is still formidable and vicious, indeed creative, as he makes his appeal to black voters for their forgiveness and their votes. Osgood’s chief consultant, crusty ex-journalist Gene Boshell, predicts: “‘when he gets desperate, that’s when he gets dirty.’”
And, as Clark mentions in her “Author’s Note,” this fictional campaign, taking place in 1982, is modeled on the 1970 gubernatorial campaign, called by historians “the nastiest campaign ever to take place in this country.”
Daniel is not a Brookie, although he is now dating the beautiful, clever Mountain Brook girl Caroline Elmore, a Harvard freshman he met at school. In Mountain Brook, there is wine and easy conversation. Life is relaxed.
Daniel is from Opelika, and in a long and beautifully constructed set piece, we observe him visit his folks there, and it is sad. His parents have escaped the farms and moved to town. Having sacrificed and struggled for years, they have achieved a middle-class existence. Dad, Bobby Dobbs, now has a doctorate in education and is assistant superintendent of schools. But “something about their scratch and claw, tooth and nail climb upwards had permanently bruised their souls.” Perpetually stressed, “They [are] incapable of laughter,” terrified of not doing the right thing. They still count pennies. A long distance call is a crisis. And their lives are dominated by irrational fear: with one misstep, it could all be taken away.
Daniel, bright lad, sees this and it saddens him. What joy is there in upward mobility into insecurity? Better to stay on the farm and live a simple life close to nature, like his grandparents.
We know Wallace, by fair means and foul, won the ’82 election; no surprise there. Clark’s fictional challenge is in showing us how Osgood, flawed as all men are, fails Daniel through his lack of self control. The scene where Osgood lets himself go is in fact so over the top it doesn’t seem possible. The ever-horny Daniel, however, who has been in love with the idea of a Mountain Brook girl all his life, is no saint either.
With flawed, complex characters, Clark has undertaken a project similar to Balzac’s “Human Comedy.” She means to examine, illuminate, satirize, explain Alabama society, from a variety of angles. There are two more novels to be released. What next?
Clark’s books were selected by Pat Conroy to be part of his Story River Books imprint at the University of South Carolina Press. This spring, the Southern literary world was saddened by the death of Conroy, a most generous man, supportive friend to many young writers. This Foreword is surely one of the very last pieces Conroy wrote.
He tells of his own experience with Alabama politics. In the late 80’s Conroy was approached by a Hollywood producer to write a movie about George Wallace. He met in a hotel with Gerald Wallace, George’s brother, who invites Conroy to go to the dog races with him that night as a way of bribing him. Conroy declines. Gerald then asks “Do you want me to send a whore up to your room?”
Perhaps a little boy then.
Finally Gerald Wallace says after Conroy leaves he’s going to tell everybody he sent boys to Conroy’s room, implying he might as well agree.
Conroy declines anyway: “‘That’s fine with me Gerald,’ I told him. ‘But you and I will both know it’s not true.’”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.