Can a debut novel be a masterpiece of cultural criticism? Chanelle Benz makes an earnest effort to answer that question in the affirmative. “The Gone Dead” is a startling work that will set your skin tingling and interrupt your sleep. It explores racial issues — old, new and forever unsettled — but to define a novel this sweeping by those terms alone seems reductionist.
After her grandmother dies, Billie James, a grant writer, returns to the Mississippi Delta for the first time in 30 years to claim her inheritance — $5,000 and a half-dilapidated house that was once her father’s. Billie’s late parents were Clifton James, a renowned black poet, and Pia, a white medievalist. Complete with an old tin roof and a calendar featuring images of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the house is foreign to city-girl Billie but also familiar: “She remembers it or feels like she does.”
She was there, and just 4 years old, the night her father died.
It was a tragic accident, the locals say: He fell and hit his head. But as Billie learns more about that time, this town and its people, she unravels a tangled story involving her parents’ interracial marriage, their wealthy white neighbors, the McGees, and the weighty legacy of Jim Crow. She learns what it means to belong to a place where, if you are black, life can turn sideways at any moment; anything can happen to you.
Nothing is straightforward in Greendale. Here, the past is as twisted and murky as the Atchafalaya River that’s constantly trying to swallow up the Mississippi. This place, Billie’s cousin Lola allows, “is all longing and water and ghosts.”
Reading Benz is exciting and unnerving. She excels at capturing the moods and subtle gradations of her characters who can be upstanding but also shady at times, playing fast and loose with morality.
For example, Harlan McGee, the easygoing but rudderless son of rich landowner Jim McGee, is the quintessential good ol’ boy who, on his way to the bar, will slow and comply with a billboard instructing drivers to “HONK IF U LOVE JESUS.”
As children, Jim and Cliff were best friends, as close as brothers.
“There was a time I knew Cliff like I knew my own body. His walk. The way he breathed, the length of the air he took into his chest,” Jimmy recollects. “I loved Cliff, loved him. But our bond was nothing spoken. We ourselves wouldn’t have known what to call it. It was just there like the trees, the birds, the fields — a naturally occurring thing.”
Then they hit adolescence and, as was dictated by the rules back then, each withdrew to his designated side of the color line. Adult Cliff dies young. Adult Jim goes to church twice a week. He is a good husband and a good father — but he’s also keeping secrets about what happened to Cliff leading up to his death.
Dr. Melvin Hurley, a poetry scholar, is Cliff James’s biographer, writing a tome that he hopes will place the poet on “the pantheon of black genius.” Hurley is an intellectual with the sensitivity and savvy to recognize and elevate the significance of Cliff’s work. But he also is self-servingly ambitious and blithely publishes his work with little thought to how it affects Cliff’s own family.
The first third of Benz’s novel is beautifully lyrical. It calls to mind the rolling, almost musical style of James Baldwin’s prose and mirrors his way of eloquently capturing the ugliest stories. The mystery creates urgency during the second third, when reading feels like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. It’s not going fast enough. You want to know more — now.
But the ending feels unsatisfyingly ambiguous given the current context of racial affairs. Have things really changed all that much since the days of Jim Crow and the night riders? Then as now, injustices go unpunished. Clifton James died in 1972. Philando Castile died in 2016. There, too, a 4-year-old bore witness to how unbearable America can be.
Even so, Benz could become one of the most prominent voices of her generation based on how good this book is. There is magnificent promise here, awaiting full realization.
Michele Langevine Leiby is a Washington-based freelance writer who has contributed to The Washington Post Style and Arts sections and the Sunday Magazine.
By Chanelle Benz
Ecco. 304 pp. $26.99