By Hillary Jordan
Algonquin. 324 pp. $22.95
Hillary Jordan's first novel, Mudbound, arrives emblazoned with the Bellwether Prize, a biennial award established in 1999 by Barbara Kingsolver "to support a literature of social responsibility." That sounds like wearing a "Kick Me" sign on the literary playground, but sneer all you want, O Decadent Literati. These judges know that "social commentary in our art is frequently viewed with suspicion," and they're determined "to address this deficiency" by giving $25,000 every two years to the author of a previously unpublished novel.
Even by the grandiose standards of award statements, the Bellwether Prize is something of a prizewinner. "Socially responsible literature," the Web site intones, "may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices." But don't go thinking that's what all good literature does. "The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature." Note that emphasis on clarity, comrades. Ambiguity, Subtlety and Wit, go wait outside; we'll tell you when the meeting is over.
Fortunately, Mudbound is not as clunky as the Bellwether Prize would suggest, but it does suffer from a deadening earnestness. It's determined to enunciate its "socially responsible" themes loudly and clearly so that no good liberal will put this book down without realizing how wrong it is to lynch black people or treat women like second-class citizens or throw out plastic jars that could easily be recycled.
The novel begins and ends with the burial of Pappy in a water-soaked grave. "There was nothing to show that his death was anything other than the natural, timely passing of an old man." His sons, Henry and Jamie, are hurrying to get Pappy in the ground before the rain starts up again. His daughter-in-law, Laura, and two granddaughters look on; no one is grieving.
The story of how they all arrived at this pitiless grave site on the Mississippi Delta is told by a series of narrators in short chapters, each labeled with the speaker's name. We learn that Laura was an old maid English teacher in Memphis when Henry McAllan asked her to marry him. "Henry was neither dashing nor romantic," Laura confesses. "But he loved me, and I knew that he would provide for me and be true to me and give me children who were strong and bright. And for all that, I could certainly love him in return." And she does, even though she's attracted -- along with every other woman in Memphis -- to Jamie, Henry's handsome younger brother, an Air Force bomber pilot still recovering from the psychological wounds of World War II.
Several pleasant enough chapters describe how Henry and Laura started their family, kindly took in his odious Pappy and eventually bought a mudbound farm in Mississippi, much to Laura's disappointment. There's a tendency here to speak in the broad generalizations of a History Channel documentary: "Those months after the war were jubilant ones for us and for the whole country," Laura says. "We'd pulled together and been victorious. Our men were home, and we had sugar, coffee and gasoline again."
Slightly more exciting fare comes from Ronsel, the son of a sharecropper family on the McAllans' farm, who's back from the war. He was one of the first African American tank drivers, and he managed -- just barely -- to avoid getting killed by German bullets in Europe and white racism in the army. The abuse he suffered from fellow servicemen and officers is terrible, of course, but these scenes are so darn instructive, the theme of moral outrage writ so large, that the book doesn't challenge our prejudices so much as give us the easy satisfaction of feeling superior to these evil Southerners. That's the sweet taste of so-called socially responsible literature, which leaves us pretty much where it found us but with the false impression that we've engaged in some kind of consciousness-raising exercise.
Jamie and Ronsel have returned from the war with liberal attitudes that put them decades ahead of their fellow Mississippians, particularly Pappy, who instantly despises the confident black vet and never misses a chance to humiliate him. Henry is a little more enlightened but still believes in the kind of racial paternalism that keeps him on top: "Whatever else the colored man may be," he tells us, "he's our brother. A younger brother, to be sure, undisciplined and driven by his appetites, but also kindly and tragic and humble before God. For good or ill, he's been given into our care."
His condescending benevolence extends especially to Ronsel's parents, Hap and Florence. Florence, you can be sure, is the wise Negress every socially responsible novel requires: She won't take no lip from nobody; she can heal better with her herbs than the doctor with his medicines; and, of course, she has that requisite mystical wisdom. "Jamie McAllan had a hole in his soul, the kind the devil loves to find," she tells us in a typical moment of insight. "None of em seen it but me."
Once Jordan gets these characters in place, she builds a compelling family tragedy, a confluence of romantic attraction and racial hatred that eventually falls like an avalanche. Indeed, the last third of the book is downright breathless. But, unfortunately, all of these narrators lack the essential quality of incompleteness. They're burdened with such thorough self-knowledge that the book has no room for dramatic irony. "What we cannot speak," Jamie thinks toward the end, "we say in silence," which is odd coming from a character who has already told us everything, including painful things we should have been allowed to infer. Jordan has plenty of talent to compose an engaging story, and when she tries to do less, she may very well end up doing more. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.