ONCE TWO HEROES

By Calvin Baker

Viking. 275 pp. $23.95

Three years ago, James Allen, an art collector and antique dealer, published Without Sanctuary, his private collection of lynching photographs. The shocking pictures offered clear evidence that the lynching of African Americans was once a popular pastime in the South. Some readers were dismayed to learn that lynchings were festive occasions. Clearly, these were souvenir photographs: Happy-go-lucky white Southern men and women smiled and said "cheese" for the camera while "strange fruit" hung behind them.

Though I can't know for certain, I suspect the young black novelist Calvin Baker was both moved and influenced by these photographs. Baker's second novel, Once Two Heroes, attempts to give an account of the racial, historical and psychological forces that could lead one man to lynch another. It concerns two reasonable, decent men, one black, one white, both World War II veterans. Book One tells the story of Mather Henry Rose, Book Two the parallel story of Lewis Hampton. Their lives intersect in the most violent manner imaginable.

Mather Henry Rose is a black man born of expatriate parents. He lived in Paris the first 18 years of his life, before coming to the States to connect with the American side of the family and his ethnic heritage. He loses his parents when Germany invades France. When America enters the war, he joins the segregated U.S. Army. He sees combat, distinguishes himself and returns home a decorated hero. But he has been cheated of one medal -- the Medal of Honor. On a journey to recoup the medal he was denied (and, symbolically, to confront American racial injustice), he passes through Mississippi. A chance stop at a filling station leads to a violent encounter. He defends himself with justifiable force against an armed assailant, but justice is less important than the result: Mather has broken the Southern code and killed a white man.

Lewis Hampton is a native Mississippian. He, too, journeys to war. The experience broadens his mind. But despite his Northern war buddies' criticisms of his home state, Hampton believes in Mississippi. He returns home a decorated hero, marries, becomes a noteworthy citizen. His world is orderly, if imperfect, but spins wildly out of control when his brother is murdered. Killed by Mather Henry Rose.

Once Two Heroes is a severely unbalanced novel. The first section is superior by far to the second. Rose is a promising character; the reader is set up for a curiously traditional Richard Wright-style protest novel, but also one with an international flavor remarkably reminiscent of the work of the now largely forgotten protest novelist William Gardner Smith. Once Two Heroes would have been well served if at an early point in the writing an editor had suggested that the author tell Rose's story alone.

The form, while clever, finally constrains the novelist's imagination. It becomes forced. Baker seems to be writing merely to fulfill the mandates of his plan. Too bad, because he can write well about the lives and sentiments of Northern blacks. The second section, however, wherein he attempts to recreate Jim Crow Mississippi, is a disaster. Baker has undertaken a daunting task for a black writer -- to describe a lynching from a white perspective and retain some measure of human sympathy for the participants. But even before the climactic scene, in which Lewis Hampton leads a vicious lynch mob, the white characters of Book Two are tepidly written and unconvincing. Nobody ever talked the way these characters do -- except in bad novels. Baker's vision of the South is a series of cliche{acute}d generalizations gathered from obvious sources.

The lynching itself drags on for page after page, and Baker piles on horrific details. But the scene never comes to life, nor does it achieve the power of the photographs in Without Sanctuary. Baker's writing appears to aim for a Faulkneresque effect, without success. Take the following sentence, describing the reactions of a black child who also witnessed the lynching: "And if, fifty years from here, when the boy would be sixty-five or so, and the men would be all in their seventies, one of the ones who were there approached his deathbed and needed it, not so he could get right for any kind of afterlife, but needed the record, not all the way straight, no man or child has that power in him, or any other who was there that night, but needed it, so it would all be less crooked, less dark and cowardly cast over his homeland, and so told the thing, as unslantwise as he could . . . could even his own children forgive and absolve him?" The meandering sentence lacks even a hint of Faulkner's immediacy.

Once Two Heroes fails to explain how Lewis Hampton changes from a family man into a willing participant in a lynching. The sudden transformation remains a mystery. The theme Baker apparently hoped to illuminate -- that something endemic to the construction of white Southern identity requires the comforting catharsis of a brutalized black body -- is also implicit in the photographs in Without Sanctuary. Photography, being the medium of the eye, can achieve mythic significance merely by presenting an image. But literature is the medium of characters, verisimilitude and ideas. Calvin Baker has talent, but he will have to work harder at mastering the tools of his medium. *

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic in Charleston, S.C. His email address is DarrylWellington464@hotmail.com.