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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Southern Life in Crisis : THE MEASURED MAN by Howard Owen; HarperCollins $23, 288 pages

March 05, 1997|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"We could have seen that storm coming," muses a ghostly woman at an odd moment in Howard Owen's latest novel. "But we didn't."

The woman, whose voice can be heard now and then in the pages of "The Measured Man" like a whisper on the wind, is speaking of something very much in the here and now, a force of nature that ruins the lives of an unsuspecting family. But she is also echoing a metaphor that neatly describes what happens in Owen's novel of race hatred in a small Southern town.

More than one storm boils up out of history and blows through the lives of the otherwise quite ordinary men, women and children in "The Measured Man." Slavery in the Old South is the starting point, I suppose, but Owen shows how we are afflicted and haunted by what has come before us in small and subtle ways.

At the eye of the storm, so to speak, we encounter Walker Fann, the dispirited scion of a Southern family with a small-town newspaper. Someday, Walker and his children may inherit the paper where he works as publisher, but the daily encounters with his father--"Big Man," as the bullying old fellow is known--are so wearing that Walker does not care much one way or the other.

Indeed, if Walker is passionate about anything, it is baseball--the last remnant of his youthful prowess. Walker, we are told, "knows precisely the movement to stretch his hand to stop a line drive, precisely the movement that will snag a hot grounder the instant it comes up from the hard clay infield with the solid leather pop of fulfillment."

And so, when a 13-year-old boy on a bicycle snatches his beloved baseball glove, Walker insists that the kid spend a night in jail to learn his lesson. Walker is white, the thief is black, and the incident leads to a conflagration of race hatred that sears the numbness out of Walker's heart and sets him afire.

Walker is already a man on the verge of a midlife crisis when we first meet him, and the repercussions of the young thief's night in jail are enough to tip Walker into the abyss of self-doubt and self-loathing.

Suddenly, Walker is forced to question everything in his life--his troubled relationship with his father, his shortcomings in raising his teenage children, and the sorry compromises he has made with his conscience.

Eventually, he is also forced to confront the most intimate loss--the sudden death of the woman who seemed to know him better than he knew himself. Here, we are finally allowed to see the ghostly woman, and we understand at last why there seems to be a black hole at the center of Walker's universe.

The plot device that drives "The Measured Man" is the conflict between Walker and his father over a proposed museum to be built on the site of an old slave market in the little town of Cottondale, a faintly Oedipal conflict that symbolizes the public debate over how to understand--and whether we ought to atone for--the crimes against black Americans in the not-so-distant past.

But "The Measured Man" is also a kind of sentimental journey, awkward and bittersweet, as Walker reprises his own experiences as a privileged but troubled young man growing up in the South at precisely the moment in history when the white gentry was fading and the grandchildren of slaves were standing up in both pride and anger.

A certain modesty and matter-of-factness knocks the edges off the story that Owen tells and the way he tells it. And yet there is a much deeper resonance to "The Measured Man," something momentous and even mythic.

"Give me your son! Give me your son!" booms a mysterious voice in an enigmatic scene that opens the book. We are never really told whether the voice is angelic or diabolic, but we are reminded of the sacrifices that we are sometimes called upon to make when we are trying, as Walker himself puts it, "to make something right."

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