Reading a Doug Marlette novel is rather like falling into an apperceptive dreamland, where everything is not merely recognizable but remembered, and every character is a doppelganger of someone you've known or seen. This is not merely verisimilitude, which a novelist might strive toward, but a kind of kidnapping and theft.
Marlette takes the things we know and imagine about certain people and events and forges them into a shorthand of shared perception and experience, more sophisticated than cave drawings but equally hieroglyphic.
In Magic Time, his follow-up to The Bridge, Marlette draws a classic story, that of the man who returns home to confront the demons of his youth. Carter Ransom is a columnist at a New York daily tabloid, a journalist at the peak of his career, which has taken him from the haunting little town of Troy, Miss., through Atlanta, and on to national prominence. Undone by a terrorist attack and the distant memories it awakens, Ransom has a breakdown and returns to Mississippi to recuperate.
His breakdown, and his demons, are the legacy of a 1965 church bombing in Troy that killed three civil rights workers and the daughter of a local pastor. One of those civil rights workers had been the love of his life. A new trial, this time of the mastermind of the plot, coincides with his return home. Ransom's father, a judge, had presided over the first trials, which led to the conviction of two bombers but a hung jury in the case of the local Klan leader, now an elderly and wheelchair-bound husk of a man. Thus begins a prodigal son story, and in the end the expiation of various sins of the past and present free Ransom to love again. So he does.
The events at the core of the story have been lifted with few changes from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, the 1965 murders of three Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in Meridian, Miss., and the recent trials of elderly Klan terrorists, including Edgar Ray Killen. The New York terrorist bombing that triggers Ransom's journey has a familiar ring as well.
Marlette, in an act of vampirism, steals our emotional response to these acts of terror so that his real story—the story of one more white man's tortuous journey to happiness—might have the illusion of weight. The events themselves are casualties of this method, inadvertently trivialized by their yoking to the story of Carter Ransom, a curiously passive sad sack. ("'Unrequitedness' was one of his tropes, but not something he necessarily used in connection with women. His unrequitedness was bigger than romance; it was the pose of the misunderstood genius....")
There's nothing mean or ill-willed about this method of Marlette's, it's just a kind of artistic laziness. Why invent characters when real people are so much more interesting, and why invent a story when a collage clipped from real life is so much prettier and easier? Carter Ransom's rival in journalism isn't just any rival, he's a thinly disguised Jayson Blair complete with cocaine snuffle, working for a thinly disguised New York Times under the protection of his editor, a thinly disguised Howell Raines. Why reach deep to create an original racist monster, when you can plunk gimpy Edgar Ray Killen down on the page and give him George Wallace's black male nurse?
Marlette is a smart writer, which is why all this laziness is so noticeable. In other places, particularly when he describes New York, his words are vivid, distinct, and shot through with real fondness. Every once in a while he lays down a perfect observation about human nature ("When an event dislodges from the jumble of daily life and claims the foreground of history, it drives out the human particulars...."), which only makes it clearer that he's holding out, backsliding on his story and his readers.
For Southern white men of a certain persuasion, it's heartbreaking to look back on the civil rights movement and see men who look like you or your daddy holding the dogs and manning the firehoses. Penance must be served somehow. Pat Conroy, John Grisham, Taylor Branch, Rick Bragg, Howell Raines, Peter Taylor and Tony Horwitz have all taken their shot at it. The canon is well-established, the canonical works are plentiful. Thin and lazy books in this honorable tradition risk seeming repetitive, derivative or a cavalcade of stereotypes. Magic Time falls into this trap.
Marlette likely would claim he is subverting certain stereotypes even as he uses them, but he seems less subversive than he is larcenous, as when his borrowings extend beyond our shared history into our shared experience of literature. In his novel, Marlette tells the reader not once, but three times, that certain of his characters are not lifted straight from To Kill a Mockingbird. He protests very much, and indeed it may be that Ransom's small gay friend is not Dill, and his father is not Atticus Finch. Perhaps Hugh, the hulking man-child with the heart of gold and the secret history who beats down the redneck attacking his friend, is not Boo Radley. (He is certainly some part Hugh McManaway, a Charlotte man whose traffic directing and commemorative statue Marlette appropriates for his own Hugh. Which rhymes with Boo.)
The similarities are striking, Marlette knows it, and instead of doing something fresh with his models, he denies them entirely.
Rene Magritte wrote on one of his paintings, "This is not a pipe." That was true, but it was certainly a painting of a pipe. One wonders how long Marlette can continue his own surrealistic project, annexing real life as the property of his fiction, declaring that imitative characters are subversions of themselves, and offering up this scrapbook as an original and daring novel.
This is not a bad review at all, and I hate Magritte references.
Duncan Murrell lives and writes in Pittsboro.