“Echolocation: A Novel”
Author: Mark Powell
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $24.99 (Hardcover)
Southern fiction is continually evolving, the characters and settings changing with the times. What began with raw East Alabama frontier characters in “The Adventures of Simon Suggs,” then “Huckleberry Finn,” then Erskine Caldwell’s pellagra-ridden creatures on” Tobacco Road,” moved to Faulkner’s plantations, Welty’s and Thomas Wolfe’s small cities.
Walker Percy set a lot of his fiction at the country club.
Mark Powell has moved Southern fiction right into this morning’s headlines.
In his previous novel, “The Sheltering” (2014), which opens in Tampa, the protagonist is a drone pilot controlling a “Reaper” over Afghanistan. The geographical distance between pilot and aircraft may be great but the emotional toll of sending down the rocket to vaporize the human target, however legal and justified the action may be, is still powerful and destructive.
Powell’s new novel, “Echolocation,” is even more disturbing. The title, as you might guess, is an allusion to whales and how, if their built-in sonar goes awry, they can beach themselves and die.
His hero, John Maynard, is in his fourth year as a psychological counselor in a small north Georgia college. Ten years earlier, while working at a conservative think tank after the death of his first wife, Karla, in a car wreck, John had written a thin study of grief and pain called “Regarding What Is Lost.” Looking back, he thinks of it as “a blur of Catholic theology and featherweight Zen” but it caused a stir, which got John noticed by The Keyes Group, funded by billionaire eccentric Peter Keyes.
Keyes then acquired Global Solutions, whose area of expertise is the “gathering of human intelligence.” Soon, John Maynard found himself recruited and working at Black Ops Site Nine, in Poland, making ten times his previous salary, as a torturer.
Maynard was assured what he was doing was patriotic and legal: national security, enhanced interrogation and all that, but things went terribly wrong.
He is now essentially rusticating himself at little Garrison College, trying to escape his past, but as readers of Southern literature, especially of Faulkner, know: the past isn’t past at all. One of Maynard’s colleagues, Professor Edward Hedawi, has just been taken into custody as a suspected terrorist, and the authorities are searching for young Jimmy Reed, whom Hedawi may have recruited as a jihadist to launch an attack in Atlanta.
Maynard is drawn back into his previous life as a government contractor to save Reed from tragedy, to avoid the legal consequences of his previous actions and to assuage his own conscience, which is driving him near to despair.
The author, Mark Powell, has some unusual credentials to bring to these tales of Air Force drones and Black Site contractors. Powell has the MFA from South Carolina, of course, but is also a graduate of The Citadel, although he never joined the military, and a graduate of The Yale School of Divinity, although he did not become a clergyman. He brings his diverse education to bear, both in his convincing descriptions of drone piloting and intelligence gathering and even more in his depiction of the corrosive effects of sin and guilt on the human psyche. His protagonist, Maynard, is having trouble relating to his wife, Tess, and his family. Tess has developed an obsession with an Al Jazeera internet video loop of a hostage in an orange jumpsuit, in a basement somewhere in the Middle East, with a knife at his throat.
The war is in Maynard’s living room, all our living rooms, as surely as it is in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”