Books
12:14 pm
Wed May 14, 2008

Like Trees, Walking

This is a remarkable first novel, impressive and sophisticated. The subject matter presents a big temptation to be hyperbolic, melodramatic, but Roy's voice is calm, reasoned. The story is told mainly in simple declarative sentences and is all the more powerful for it.

The central event in Ravi Howard's fact-based novel is the murder and hanging of a young black man, Michael Donald, Murphy H.S. Class of 1980, in Mobile on March 21, 1981. The murder, or lynching, if that is what you choose to call it, was the first in Mobile in more than sixty years. Michael Donald was seized at random by some young white thugs, KKK members, tortured, killed, and hanged from a camphor tree on a middle-class street in Mobile, a street, I am told, now named for him. Howard's novel follows actual events very closely, only inventing characters to tell the story.

I spoke of this actual event to some Mobile friends and got some interesting responses. Everyone agreed that the crime was horrific, but some bridled at the word "lynching," insisting that a true lynching must be community-sanctioned; this was more properly called a crime, a homicide. In the novel and in real life, however, the Mobile police seemed unable and, some suspected, unwilling, to find the killers. When a new Assistant U.S. Attorney reopened the case in the fall of 1983, it was solved quickly. The civil trial that bankrupted the Alabama KKK was held in February of 1987.

At first, the police put out a smokescreen of propaganda. The killing might have been a drug deal gone bad. "Love triangle. Jealous boyfriend . . . wrong place at the wrong time." Anything but a race crime. That would not be good for business. But the autopsy revealed there were not drugs or even alcohol in Donald's system. He was just a young fellow going to the store. The black population was outraged and somewhat confused. "It didn't make sense . . . . People didn't get lynched in 1981."

This novel is told from an unusual and very effective point of view. The narrator, eighteen-year-old Roy Deacon, is a high school senior who works in the family funeral home business, "Deacon Memorial: Seven Generations of Service." He and his dad must "prepare" the disfigured body. Donald's family wants an open casket, but unlike Emmett Till's mother in Chicago, they want their son's face as restored as possible. Roy and Michael Donald were acquainted, but Roy's older brother Paul and Michael were close friends, and it was Paul, coming home from work at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday after the night shift at the paper mill, who found the body. The emotional toll on Roy is huge, but for Paul, who is haunted by the crime and becomes obsessed with the need for justice, the pain is unbearable.

This novel is, in a literal sense, focused on the dead young man, on his cadaver. This only serves to make it impossible for Paul and Roy Deacon, and for readers, to shift their attention away. Respect and attention must be paid to the dead friend. There is literally no escaping it. Roy and Paul, who work with the dead, in their house, and at graveside, most every day, are naturally concerned about the possibility or likelihood of an afterlife, and discuss it often, as young men will.

This is a remarkable first novel, impressive and sophisticated. The subject matter presents a big temptation to be hyperbolic, melodramatic, but Roy's voice is calm, reasoned. The story is told mainly in simple declarative sentences and is all the more powerful for it.

There is sadness in this story, and a sense of frustration. Has the civil rights movement failed? Has no progress been made, after all? But understanding the title helps. In a passage in the gospel of Mark, Jesus treats a blind man. Asked what he sees, at first the blind man says that men appear to be like trees, walking. Jesus touches him again, and then the man can see clearly. Sometimes change comes slowly, in stages, not as a lightning bolt, but it does come.

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