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Tue December 27, 2005
The Hermit King
A collection of Cobb's "best stories," along with the reprinted novel set in a fictionalized Demopolis.
By Don Noble
Bill Cobb, along with Albert Murray, Helen Norris, Elise Sanguinetti, Harper Lee, Madison Jones, and H. E. Francis, is now one of the senior citizens of Alabama fiction.
He now has such a reputation that his early, out-of-print work is being put back into print for contemporary readers.
Cobb made his first, impressive arrival on the scene with a story, ?The Stone Soldier,? in 1964, which won the Reader?s Digest Foundation Award and was reprinted in Story magazine?s Prize College Stories.
He is now the author of six novels, a collection of stories, and has had three plays produced off-Broadway in New York City.
Cobb?s first novel, Coming of Age at the Y, was published in 1984 and will be reprinted next year. This novel, The Hermit King, was originally published in 1986 and is here reprinted, revised, and joined by five new stories which, not incidentally, are Cobb?s best stories ever.
The new stories show Cobb?s development, and the re-issued novel is a testimony to his lasting power.
The Hermit King, set in Cobb?s home town of Demopolis in 1944, called, throughout his career, Hammond, Al., begins with a tone reminiscent of Faulkner?s The Bear:
?There was a legend, told over old dying fires in grates, or maybe swapped back and forth over sandwiches being consumed at noon, of the deer hunts that touched the edge of the swamp, the type of legend that a boy of 12 would never tire of listening to . . . ?
This opening sentence goes on for another 186 words. The legend is of the Negro Joe Bynamo, who has one good eye, carries a bullwhip, and lives deep in the swamp.
After this opening we meet the protagonists, two kids, Billie Malone and Hallie Fisque, who are about to become real adolescents. Both half-orphans--Billy?s father has been killed in the war and Hallie has lost her mother-- increasingly alienated from their obtuse adults, they hang out together like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, attracted to one another in ways they do not yet understand.
After being caught in childish misdemeanors, embarrassed and punished, they run away from home into the oddly Edenic swamp and there meet you know who.
This short novel has a sweet and innocent tone but ends as it must, with Billie and Hallie falling into maturity and an awareness of the violent and fallen nature of the world around them.
The five stories that accompany this reprinted short novel are Cobb?s best.
The only humorous one is ?Brother Bobby?s Eye,? the premise of which is that an evangelical preacher, Bobby, whose eye is knocked out in a construction accident and then buried in a mayonnaise jar, continues to see out of it, indeed sees more out of his lost eye than is good for him, more in fact than may be true.
?The Best of It? examines the fractured relationship between a grown man and his father, who has, in the son?s eyes, committed unforgivable sins. But we each get only one father, and it would be wisest to forgive.
?Birmingham: Mother?s Day 1961? is set at the Greyhound bus station on the day of the Klan attacks on the Freedom Riders. The protagonist?s massive personal frustration over his retarded son causes him to explode in violence even though he is, one would say, a fine and decent man.
In ?Passin? Side / Suicide,? the protagonist, like several of Cobb?s characters, is an alcoholic and is attempting step nine of the famous 12, making amends. Sometimes, though, it is just too late.
The most subtle and deepest of the new stories may be ?Walking Strawberry,? which, although the title refers to the New York Mets outfielder Daryl Strawberry and the World Series against the Atlanta Braves, is really the story of Harry Whitaker, elderly world-famous artist, living in Grayton Beach, Fl., with his wife of 40 years and stuck with something like ?painter?s block? in the middle of a painting.
Harry has come to what we now all too often call a defining moment, but he passes through, and his art will continue, as will Bill Cobb?s.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.