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The Bad Seed

IN THE FALL A Novel By Jeffrey Lent; Atlantic Monthly Press: 560 pp., $25

May 07, 2000|HENRY MAYER | Henry Mayer is the author of "All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery," which won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award. He is at work on a biography of the photographer Dorothea Lange

Jeffrey Lent's ambitious first novel, "In the Fall," is a wide-screen historical novel that is meant to pivot on the provocative--and resurgently contemporary--issue of interracial sexual relationships. The book is written with such somber grace and compelling period detail that its failure to address its theme in any meaningful way is both regrettable and symptomatic of how readily this issue, which pierces the heart of the American experience, can be trivialized into a box-office gimmick.

"In the Fall" begins in the aftermath of the Civil War, when a Vermont soldier, Norman Pelham, brings home as his wife a young fugitive slave, Leah Mebane, who rescued him after he had been left for dead on the battlefield outside Richmond. Their cold reception frames the first third of the novel, as Lent portrays the vicissitudes of their relationship and Leah's gradual mental collapse under the burdens of her enslaved past and racial isolation in the rural community.

"In the Fall," though entertaining, fails to weave a spell, and the reader remains an onlooker, rather than a participant, in another world. The novel is ultimately driven by character, not story or theme, and Lent abruptly flashes forward to the early 20th century, dropping Norman and Leah's story to trace, in a long and meandering middle section, the career of their youngest child, the runaway Jamie Pelham, as a bootlegger in the resort district of the White Mountains. The hotel settings are vivid and the whiskey business described with a gift for textured detail Lent also brings to Vermont farm routines, but Jamie is a repellent character--self-absorbed, mercurial and violent--and his passionate relationship with Joey, a hard-as-nails torch singer, unfolds in hackneyed scenes. Only a few glances in the direction of the discrimination endured in waspish New England by Joey's [nee "Joie"] French-Canadian family recall the theme with which the novel began.

The author tries to get back on track when, after a cunningly plotted act of revenge eliminates Jamie (Joey has already perished, in the great flu epidemic of 1918), Lent brings their nearly grown son, Foster, back to Vermont in search of his father's long-suppressed history. The boy is an implausible but winning combination of innocence and sensitivity, and the bond he forges with his aunts is an emotional high point of the saga.

Though Jamie had successfully "passed" in white society and Foster has no qualms about his mainstream identity, he takes the quest for his grandmother Leah's story into North Carolina, where he conveniently finds the young master Leah had beaten and left for dead after he had attempted to rape her. Now an aged and gabby character, the former owner teases Foster with kernels of conflicting information. Foster (and perhaps the author) remains oblivious to the ambiguities in the old man's vengeful tale.

There are some neo-Faulknerian rumblings, to be sure. "Slavery he knew then was not the whips and chains of the school history books," Foster thinks, "but some stain far greater and deeper, something that had been unleashed and then bloomed up, between and within at once, both races, white and black, forever and without surcease, tenacious, untouchable and unchangeable. And wondered how a man might know this and go on." He seems satisfied to leave it at that and heads west with a lubricious young Carolina cousin, two young people, each with a trace of the tar brush, lighting out for the territory in an unworthy denouement.

The family saga is an honorable genre, but "In the Fall" is too disconnected, too preoccupied with the central romance in each generation, to probe the continuities and conflicts among the generations in any meaningful way. Time passes, the background changes, but new figures simply pop up like cutouts in a diorama. Lent shifts the theme of his novel from whether relationships may transcend socially imposed racial categories to how slavery has warped American society. Yet for us today, the "stain far greater and deeper" is the racism of the century-long refusal to honor the promises made in the aftermath of the war that still fascinates us as an occasion for historical romance.

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