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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A 100-Year Web Spun From Curse of Slavery : WATER FROM THE WELL by Myra McLarey ; Atlantic Monthly Press $21, 224 pages

October 27, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Red clay roads, cotton fields, swamps, moonshine, hellfire sermons, segregation. Slavery's long shadow. Passion's way of fracturing both law and duty, as tree roots split rocks. Rape and murder spun from fact into legend by front-porch storytellers almost before the blood has dried.

Ah, Faulkner, we think.

But wait. A century-old matriarch with one brown eye and one green, whose green eye sees into the future. An implacably angry, castrated ex-slave who rides into death on the ghost of a pony he rode in the post-Civil War West. A tornado that gathers all the lives in Sugars Spring, Ark., into its coils and spits them out broken or changed, that hangs a woman by her long red hair from the limbs of an oak tree after she and her baby have flown undamaged a mile through the air.

Lewis Nordan? we think more doubtfully. Surely not Flannery O'Connor. Maybe one of those South American magical realists, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and such?

Wait again. A cow-pasture home run that tilts the racial balance. An ex-soldier in Maine who spends half his life trying to return a ring and a watch to the family of the wounded Confederate from whom he took them. His daughter, who visits southwestern Arkansas to complete that mission and never returns. The plain, spunky local girl who marries the town's most eligible bachelor, David Ben Sugars--perhaps the kindest, handsomest sheriff in all Southern literature--and who spends her life trying to get her transplanted Yankee Unitarian friend inside a properly fundamentalist church.

At this point we have to concede: A fresh, new voice after all. Myra McLarey's the name.

"Water From the Well" is a deceptively short novel that buckets up more than we expect a container its size to hold. It brims with stories and people and scenery, organized so that despite an apparent profusion of detail no word is superfluous. McLarey's narrative, which spans more than 100 years, flows from description to dialogue and back again without boundaries, in true front-porch fashion; its eddies and repetitions have the hypnotic effect of chant.

A native of the region around real-life Hope and Arkadelphia, McLarey makes her fictional Sugars Spring and its black district, Bethel--which white folks insist on calling Chickenham--a microcosm of the Old South.

They are, as the Yankee lady, Cora Emery McRae, thinks of it, "really one township, but two distinct communities, separated by custom and by law and by choice, separated by the color of their skin, even by the color of the soil, by both enmity and politeness, separated even in their churches, and by so many other lines, visible and invisible. But twined, too, in ways she would never fully understand, twined by the same strings that marked the lines of separation. . . . Twined by blood even."

The point of view shifts from major characters--such as Sheriff Sugars, whose ancestors founded the town, and his mysterious black counterpart, Samuel Daniel McElroy, whose ancestors were dragged to it in bondage--to minor characters to transient onlookers to a chorus of local gossips. The tone varies, too, from tragedy to wry detachment to humor.

How we respond to "Water From the Well" depends on how much of a premium we put on neatness. McLarey takes her title from a spiritual about how Jesus made a gift of "living water" that was "not from the well." Her water, presumably, is the muddy, polluted stuff of ordinary life, but she has distilled it obsessively into order and into art.

Some readers may feel that McLarey's mode of telling verges on preciousness and artificiality. They will point out that Faulkner's stories sprawled lustily from book to book and that one of the incontestably great Southern novels, Cormac McCarthy's "Suttree," is almost shapeless.

Others, though--who like an author to mark every character, just as God marks sparrows; who want the second shoe to fall after the first; who thrill when emotional rewards come on schedule, if often in unexpected ways--will find "Water From the Well" exactly their Mason jar of ice sun-tea.

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