A STORY OF DEEP DELIGHT
By Thomas McNamee
Viking. 421 pp. $19.95
A number of America's finest younger fiction writers have recently turned away from the allurements of our larger cities to write about out-of-the-way and little-known corners of the country. Without falling into the category of "regional writers" in any limiting sense of the term, novelists such as Ernest Hebert, Cathie Pelletier, Robert Olmstead and Ivan Doig, to name a few, have mined the rich particularities of their own far-flung territories from Maine to Montana to produce a first-rate body of fresh new American fiction.
Thomas McNamee, whose novel "A Story of Deep Delight" brilliantly evokes the human and natural history of the Tennessee-Mississippi border country, is just such a writer. McNamee's three-part story begins in 1811 on a nearly mystical note in a wild swamp deep in the troubled Chickasaw nation: "In ages past there had been at its heart a vast black lake in which the biggest alligators in the world lived, and as the generations had passed and the lake had slowly filled in, and the cypress and tupelo gum had encircled it ever more tightly, the reputation of this place as a sanctuary of primeval magic had grown."
As the embattled Chickasaws struggle to preserve their land and identity, an exceptional young man named Tchula Homa emerges as their last great spokesman. "The world moves one way while I lean against it, trying to push back," Tchula Homa tells his beautiful wife, Moon Behind Cloud. Inevitably, however, despite Tchula Homa's efforts to preserve the integrity of his people, ruthless white settlers (abetted by President Andrew Jackson) overrun the Chickasaw's ancestral territory, and Tchula Homa's people are systematically starved, slaughtered and driven into exile. "Our land is a part of our very being, and can never be mere property," a tribe member states in a speech that seems as relevant today as 175 years ago. "We could no more change land than we could change bodies."
The second, and most dramatic, section of McNamee's saga begins with the onset of the Civil War near the plantation of one Giovanni Corelli, a blustering but good-hearted Italian expatriate. The two most memorable characters in this part of the novel are Corelli's octoroon mistress Felice and her wonderfully idiosyncratic and determined lover, a stable hand named Sylvester Woodson. Together and apart, Felice and Sylvester endure, and ultimately prevail over, the devastating ravages of the war, including the annihilation of more than 300 black men, women and children at the Fort Pillow Massacre and the bizarre, nearly tragicomic fall of Memphis as witnessed by hundreds of picnicking townspeople on the bluffs above the Mississippi River.
"Groans, whistles, Rebel yells, outraged exhortations to courage, contemptuous moans at cowardice -- at each successive exchange the multitude roared. All that could be seen from the bluff now were shapes in the soot-dark haze, and the Confederate ships' high twin stacks. Ducks and geese flew in terrified circles over the clamor and smoke. A spiteful Southern sailor turned his rifle on an eagle, and now it floated away with wings outspread on the flotsam-choked current."
The final part of the novel (the title comes from a poem by Robert Penn Warren) traces the youth and early career of Giovanni Corelli's descendant Wordlaw Corelli, an aspiring but distracted painter, from 1958 to 1980. By the mid-20th century, all the wild country that once belonged to the Chickasaws is at risk -- not from the onslaught of frontiersmen or settlers or soldiers, but from developers like Wordlaw's rapacious father, who's scheming to turn the edges of Tchula Homa's beautiful and mysterious swamp into a housing subdivision called "Chickasaw Estates." There are some finely drawn characters in this section of the story as well, including Wordlaw himself and his gifted musician friend, Sylvester ("Saxophone Chicago") Woodson II.
Occasionally the novel's pace flags with the introduction of documents better suited for a social history, such as rather lengthy excerpts from the speeches of Andrew Jackson, and with the presence toward the end of the book of several characters superfluous to McNamee's main story. But these are minor glitches in what is otherwise a remarkably convincing novel. Like Wordlaw Corelli's marvelous mature paintings of cougars and catfish and cypress knees, "A Story of Deep Delight" comes straight from the heart, to celebrate a unique yet quintessentially American terrain and the unforgettable people who lived there for almost two centuries.
The reviewer is a Vermont novelist.