Fri December 12, 2003
The Spider's Web
At the age of fourteen, in 1954, Greenhaw, and his protagonist alter-ego Thomas Morgan Reed, developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. In The Spider's Web Thomas must endure a year of excruciating operations and body casts.
By Don Noble
Wayne Greenhaw is one of those writers who can't wait to finish his morning coffee so he can get to his keyboard. Since 1968 he has published about twenty volumes of fiction and nonfiction, depending on how you count, and his pace has even picked up lately with a new book every few months it seems. He is becoming the Joyce Carol Oates of Alabama letters.
Through these years I have admired Greenhaw's nonfiction more than his fiction. His political commentaries such as Watch Out for George Wallace, his book on the drug trade in Alabama, Flying High, his book on Lt. William Calley and the My Lai Massacre are important contributions, as was recently his history of the city of Montgomery.
The Spider's Web, a novella and seven stories, is, I think, his best fiction ever. Although Greenhaw would probably feel obliged to deny it, this is highly autobiographical fiction.
At the age of fourteen, in 1954, Greenhaw, and his protagonist alter-ego Thomas Morgan Reed, developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. In The Spider's Web Thomas must endure a year of excruciating operations and body casts, and for months at a time his home becomes a children's ward in a Birmingham hospital.
Greenhaw captures the white sterility of that place beautifully. One can see it and, even more importantly, smell it: the rubbing alcohol, the vomit, the disinfectant used on the floors. Thomas meets others in his medical captivity, and we and he come to know them?not well?but in the way the citizens of a hospital know one another: in the immediate present, with little history. We meet the other children: Sara Jane, trapped in an iron lung, Lanier, whose hip sockets are degenerating, and who is reading Sara Jane From Here to Eternity in daily clandestine sessions. The black orderly, George, is decent and compassionate, a friend to Thomas, far beyond what his meager salary would require. The ward is a world, as many of us know, and Greenhaw, who lived in that world for months, fifty years ago, remembers and renders it painfully well.
The other stories, with two exceptions, are set in the Tuscaloosa of the 1950's. They are incidents in the life of Thomas Reed, and most are stories of adolescence. Thomas' daddy, Harold Reed, is in the early stories a travelling drummer for barber and beauty supplies?a kind of knight of the Alabama open road?given to laughter, storytelling, and a sip of whiskey. But as his territory becomes less lucrative, Harold succumbs to despair, too much whiskey, other women, and finally ends up in Bryce. Several of the stories trace this decline, and, as the sequence progresses, Thomas and his brother, Donnie Lee, must adjust their relationship to their father and to their mother.
Since Thomas is a teenage boy, there are also incidents of sexual arousal, sexual frustration, sexual initiation, heartbreak?all the regular problems of a teenage boy in the fifties or any other time. Young Thomas grows up, however, in these tales, and after studying with a Hudson Strode figure at the University, moves to Montgomery.
The volume ends with a pair of stories almost any reader can relate to. In the next to last, Daddy dies, and Thomas' feelings are powerful but mixed. In the ultimate story, Mama dies, and Thomas is then, as most people finally are, an orphan. No matter that he is sixty-four?if you have no father or mother, you are in a category that's different, one you have never been in before.
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.