Mon October 30, 2006
Marlette's second novel, Magic Time, also has a biographical dimension like his first novel, The Bridge, which chronicled the life of his grandmother, whom he had not known well. Magic Time chronicles the life of a teenage boy, living in Laurel, Mississippi, in the 1960s, during the turmoil of the civil rights movement.
By Don Noble
After his graduation from Florida State University, Doug Marlette went to work as a cartoonist, and created a hugely successful career. Marlette started out at papers in Florida and then Atlanta. At the Charlotte Observer, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of cartoons satirizing the Bakkers, Jim and Tammy Faye. Really, though, what better subject could any cartoonist dream of? Marlette also became well known as the creator of the comic strip ?Kudzu,? again drawing figures, but with slightly more text.
During the 1990s, however, Marlette learned the story of his grandmother, whom he had not known well. She, it turned out, had been stabbed by a bayonet during labor strife at a North Carolina textile mill in the 1930s. Marlette interviewed eyewitnesses, did the research, and in 2001 published his first novel, The Bridge.
Marlette?s second novel, Magic Time, also has a biographical dimension. As a teenage boy, Marlette lived in Laurel, Mississippi, in the 1960s, during the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Laurel, called here Troy, is the hometown of Magic Time?s protagonist, Carter Ransom. Ransom, after suffering a kind of nervous breakdown, takes a leave from his job as a columnist at a New York newspaper and comes back home to rest, with his father, sister, nephew, and childhood friends, but the traumas of his young manhood are about to be revived and relived in Troy.
A capable, ambitious, and beautiful federal prosecutor is reopening a case everyone thought to be closed forever. There had been, in Troy, in 1964, a fire-bombing of a black church that housed a ?freedom school.? Several had perished, including the woman Carter loved, Sarah Solomon, a Jewish civil rights worker from New York.
Readers will notice that Marlette has moved the Birmingham church bombing to Mississippi and made the victims not little girls but black and white, male and female, northern and southern civil rights workers. The trial of the Klansman Sam Bohannon, in Magic Time, is a mix of the trials of Edgar Ray Killen and Byron de la Beckwith and others.
Carter?s mental heath is none too stable, and the reopening of the old murder case rocks him. He is further distressed when his father, the judge who had presided over the original trial, is accused of suppressing evidence against the killer.
Marlette is a storyteller. Much of this material is pretty familiar, but Marlette has told it as a mystery novel, as an adventure story. In the 1991 trial, the details of the 1964 fire-bombing are revealed. Ransom comes to terms with his own past and his father?s and, although he is a bachelor in his forties by this time, is now, finally, capable of falling in love without the crippling fear that that love will be taken from him.
Along with the central narrative, Marlette tends to crowd his canvas with subplots. In Magic Time we also learn of the career of Elijah Knight, son of the Ransoms? maid Nettie and now a congressman in the House of Representatives. There is even another murder solved, the lynching and mutilation of a black man named Dexter Washington.
Almost as comic relief, Marlette includes the story of WunderCorp, a German chemical company that wishes to build a large plant in Troy and of course promises to respect the environment. The natural beauty of Troy is saved through the Endangered Species Act?the red-cockaded woodpecker to the rescue.
Marlette, in The Bridge and here again in Magic Time, likes to put in characters pretty clearly modeled on real life people, all disclaimers notwithstanding. The representative of WunderCorp in Laurel, the smooth Helmut Schlank, seems a lot like Doctor Z. of recent Mercedes commercials, and readers will recognize in Rasheed Lovelace, a reporter of dubious ethical practices, a portrait of the disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair.
Marlette occasionally overwrites. There are so many strands of plot in his novels that he needs epilogues to tell the reader what happened to all those characters. But his novels have that sine qua non, energy, with characters one comes to care about, who learn and have real experiences that change their lives.
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.