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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 28, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

THE SWEET EVERLASTING by Judson Mitcham (University of Georgia Press: $22.95, 200 pp.) When we first hear the red-clay accent of Ellis Burt, the 74-year-old narrator of poet Judson Mitcham's first novel, we assume he's a black man. He isn't. But our brief confusion serves Mitcham's purpose. This is a novel about the insidiousness and the brutality of racism in the mid-century South. Burt, a sharecropper's son and cotton-mill worker, has shared the poverty of African Americans and witnessed the lynching of a black neighbor, and stamped out some of his inheritance of prejudice, but the ember of it that lies hidden in him flares up in a moment of rage that destroys his family.

This moment is the flaw in an otherwise moving and well-written book--a serious flaw, because it's at the center of the story. Mitcham prepares us so thoroughly for Burt's redemption--showing us his love of nature, his honesty, his gropings toward Christian faith--that he doesn't prepare us enough for the suddenness and depth of his fall. It may just be a matter of skill. William Faulkner--writing, admittedly, of an earlier generation--probably could have persuaded us that a man as good as Burt could do something so bad, but Mitcham's attempt seems forced. His publisher compares "The Sweet Everlasting" to William Kennedy's "Ironweed," but here, again, the comparison fails. Kennedy's Francis Phelan, though we sympathize with him, is truly a sinner; Burt, just a decent guy who made one tragic mistake.

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