“The Ex-suicide: A Mountain Brook Novel”
Author: Katherine Clark
Publisher: University of South Carolina Press, Story River Books
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
“The Ex-suicide” is the fourth and final novel in Katherine Clark’s Mountain Brook series, books which were among the first in the late Pat Conroy’s imprint Story River Books.
The first, “The Headmaster’s Darlings,” was primarily the story of Gargantuan, Falstaffian Norman Laney, the 600-pound teacher at the Brook-Haven School, and how Laney ever so subtly manipulated the parents of his students into being willing to send their children, the brightest of them at least, out of state, to Ivy League schools if possible, in order for those young people to be exposed to a wider, more sophisticated world and perhaps return one day to Alabama and enrich the culture from which they had sprung. Laney is my favorite character in the whole series, but he has only a cameo appearance in “The Ex-suicide.”
The second novel, “All the Governor’s Men,” was about Alabama gubernatorial politics, loosely based on the statewide Brewer campaign against George Wallace. The third, “The Harvard Bride,” had a narrower focus: the story of one unhappy upper-class marriage.
Now Clark has returned to the village of Mountain Brook, and with a vengeance.
It would be easy, and wrong, to say this novel is simply a comedy of manners or a satire of the “Little Kingdom’s” mores. It is darker and more serious than that.
Hamilton Whitmire is 37, has recently returned to Alabama after four years at Harvard, a master’s in philosophy at Heidelberg, two and a half years of law school—he changed his mind at the last minute—and a PhD in English. The Whitmires are very rich, so earning a living has never been the problem; simply being willing to keep on living is Ham’s problem.
Hamilton does not want to take over the family real estate management and development business or do anything else. Not surprisingly, he has resisted marriage. Although he is straight, he worries about his lack of libido and general joylessness.
Hamilton suffers from bouts of acute depression and toys with the idea of suicide. As the novel opens he is teaching at Cahaba College, a historically black school in Fairfield, and nothing there cheers him up. The college is corrupt and in danger of being closed down. His colleagues in English don’t read or write very well, the students learn little, and then, after they are graduated, become incompetent public school teachers who cannot pass the state qualifying exams.
Hamilton was raised in a beautiful home, right across the road from the entrance to the Birmingham Country Club. In that house, in the attic, the novelist Walker Percy’s father LeRoy shot himself.
The idea of suicide permeates this philosophical, existential novel which might have been written by Walker Percy himself. Why is Hamilton—bright, good-looking, rich and socially prominent— so sad?
The first place to look is the family and culture he was formed in. His mother is beyond awful—fault-finding, essentially lazy, a domineering, racist, shallow snob. Clark is unrelenting. Mrs. Whitmire is unhappy and unfulfilled, and once in a while Ham and the reader feel a kind of pity for her, the kind we might feel for Chinese women who had their feet bound as children.
In one of the most powerful scenes, Clark shows a collection of families at the Mountain Brook Country Club on Thanksgiving. They belong to the MB Club and not the Birmingham Country Club because the Birmingham Club has been letting in just anyone. This does not mean Jews or African-Americans, just wealthy people of insufficient social clout. The families are eating turkey dinners no better than Stouffer’s frozen, and are there because they were obliged to give their black cooks the day off and the wives won’t or can’t cook.
These are women who married whom their parents chose and now spend their time buying dresses and shoes and drinking. Some, Clark tells us, have never in their lives washed their own hair.
The husbands in this novel, as in “The Headmaster’s Darlings,” SEEM to have little to do with the functioning of their own homes and flee every weekday morning to their offices and on weekends to the club and the company of other men, leaving their wives utterly to their own devices.
The waiters at the club patiently serve, eager to get home to the splendid meals their wives will have prepared.
Hamilton sees all of this, and tries not to despair. In therapy for years, Ham is struggling to understand the culture that shaped him, and his parents’ loveless marriage. He means to become one who has honestly considered suicide and decided, really decided, against it. It’s a struggle, but he will come to understand and appreciate his father better, and find meaningful work, a sensible woman to love and a reason to live.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.