Wednesday, September 20, 2006
By Doug Marlette
Farrar Straus Giroux. 480 pp. $25
By some strange twist of the cosmos, Mississippi came to be inhabited by characters, both real and imagined, who never lose their ability to entertain and enthrall. Consequently, a real Mississippi story keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat, guessing what will happen next, even if you've heard it before. Perhaps telling stories comes naturally for natives of the Magnolia State because the storytelling material there is as rich and deep as the topsoil that covers the broad expanse of the Delta.
In his second novel, "Magic Time," Doug Marlette shows that he knows a good Mississippi story when he sees one. He also weaves the best details of each little story into a single big one, demonstrating a grasp of the cultural mind-set of the state as well the conflicts it can impose on its inhabitants and expatriates.
New York newspaper columnist Carter Ransom, who grew up in the fictional southeastern town of Troy, Miss., finds himself face to face with a traumatic yet defining incident from his past. After a terrorist bombing in a New York museum, which he believes has killed his girlfriend, his thoughts and emotions drift back to the summer of 1964. Carter's first love was a young civil rights worker, Sarah Solomon, who was killed in a firebombing by a band of Ku Klux Klansmen in his home town. Faced with losing another loved one in a bombing attack, Carter breaks down and returns to his home state to recover.
Over the years, Carter's life in New York sheltered him from his past. But now his separate planes of existence have collided. To complicate his psychological recovery, soon after Carter returns home, one of the men accused of murdering his first girlfriend is brought back to trial using evidence gleaned from the co-conspirators as well as from the files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. But this new material might also implicate Carter's father, who was the judge in the original trial, in concealing evidence to protect a prominent businessman.
Mississippi's separate space-time continuum forces the action in "Magic Time" to move between Carter's year-long relationship with Sarah in 1964 and the events leading up to the trial in the present day. Marlette's clear writing and his ability to build suspense helps the book flow smoothly between these two periods. Along the way, the reader experiences the evolution of the inner life of the main characters, as well as the romance between Carter and Sarah. What makes the story convincing is that Carter is not converted to the movement's way of thinking immediately by his relationship with Sarah. Initially, he views her as an idealistic, outside agitator. But over time, as their relationship develops, he changes, eventually coming to the realization that "in the South, being had always transcended doing; faith trumped works. The region had leveraged a cult of chivalry out of slavery, after all. How to describe to anyone outside the South the ways love and evil were entwined and fused beyond the means of interpretation or reason? How to account for loving the sinner when the sin was so despicable?"
Setting a novel in the days when Mississippi burned, with the passion of those who sought to bring change and those who fought that change, presents a risky proposition for a writer. Many of the real characters from that time have either been glorified or reduced to stereotypes. To complicate things even more, how can an original story use historical events that a reader might know well and not feel contrived or staged?
Despite the temptation to build a novel around these characters, events and historical settings, Marlette avoids the pitfalls and creates a book that is charming, engaging and gripping. Along the way, "Magic Time" artfully combines elements of a number of civil rights stories. Even when I thought I knew the details of these events, as well as the personalities of his characters, Marlette shaped the action in a way that made the story his own.
My only criticism of "Magic Time" is that I wish it had not been tied up so neatly. There are parts of the book I wanted to see resolved and others that I wanted to see left in a mess, just as events are in the Mississippi that I know and sometimes struggle to love. But this is a quibble. Overall, "Magic Time" presents a realistic portrait of the collective amnesia of the South and the generational tensions that the civil rights movement stirred up, then and now. It's a real Mississippi story, not merely a faded imitation.