THE EPIGRAPH FOR THIS large, sprawling but still most satisfying Southern novel is:
"I went to the rock to hide my face.
The rock cried out, 'No hiding place.'
No hiding place down there."
It suggests the book's subject matter and theme: despite the inherent protectiveness toward their more unsavory and unacceptable personal and social history, the hidden places of Southern life cannot be obscured for long.
The rock is place: Chickasaw Ridge, Homochitto County, Mississippi, site of the McLaurin farm. The truths that are revealed to the young narrator-poet, Alan McLaurin, are the truths of secret love, unrevealed parentage, miscegenation, hatred, revenge and murder.
A Southern gothic? Well, some of the elements are gothic, but in Ellen Douglas' talented hands the story unfolds slowly, believably, without the piled-up, exclamatory haste of the gothic novel.
Undoubtedly, the novel will remind the reader of Faulkner. Douglas writes about the relation between white landowners of old lineage and the blacks who have always lived on their land, serving them both as laborers and as bed companions. She is, like Faulkner, a strong believer in the power of place, a hater of the invasion of urban values and technology into country places.
In 1971, when Alan comes back to his family home and land after a short career as a concientious objector and a late-'60s hippie, he is sure only of his need to be where he and his people have belonged for generations. He is aware of "such a phenomenon as a place in the United States to which a real American citizen is attached, which holds his past and considerable of the past of his parents and grandparents, and even his great-grandparents, the landscape of his nightmares and of all those dreams so sweet they make your teeth ache . . . .
The story moves at a leisurely pace because it is being told by 29-year-old Alan remembering his 22nd year, when he went home to the deep woods to invite his soul, as he says, to work with his hands in order to free his head for poetry. Each step in the story is progress into revelation, as another piece of the parochial puzzle is set into place.
Alan's cousins, Dallas and Lindsay Lee Boykin, learn the truths of their unknown (to them) grandparents and about their mother's death. Alan's Aunt Leila gets drunk and tells him about her love affair with Sam, a black man long connected to the family. A brother-in-law, Lester Chipman (who bears a resemblance to Faulkner's Jason Compson) is brought to the point of telling his personal history. There are more disclosures, including a final and horrifying truth about the cause of death of Sam's wife and Alan's beloved young cousin, Phoebe.
So gradually are these hidden places opened to us that the whole landscape-with-figures is familiar in appearance long before the reality behind it becomes known. We live on Chickasaw Ridge with the McLaurins, the Boykins, the Levitts, with Sam and Noah Daniels, with the Chipmans and others, feeling with them the tension created by the arrival of outsiders, like Miriam West, Alan's girl. We are upset when Lee Boykin comes back home with his Leica and his tape recorder to make money from the record of Southern life he is capturing: a fight in the country store, a white, reborn-Christian, charismatic church meeting.
Douglas makes use of every mode of transmitting history to us: oral history on a tape recorder, long conversations that Alan writes down and finally, and least likely, it seems to me, a confession made over CB radio. (This seems a last resort, after exhausting all other narrative modes.)
But it's a minor flaw. The whole work -- with its view of the young in the South in the '60s and early '70s; with its inclusion of redneck and liberal characters, blacks and whites; as well as its reflections on the inroads made by technology upon an edenic Mississippi forest (the government has built a naval space surveillance station on land sold to it by the McLaurins, reminding the reader of the golf course at the edge of the Compson land in The Sound and the Fury ) -- is a valuable and impressive fictional portrait. Here we are brought to know, poignantly, a time, a young man's loss of innocence, a civilization's endurance despite the menace of outside forces and, most of all, a place, at a moment in American culture when parochialism in American life has lost its force.