A heart-stopping story--by an award-winning novelist--located at the dead center of Southern mythology and our most intransigent national trauma.
The Mississippi Delta, fabled "South of the South," is replete with plantations carved from the wilderness, rich soil and King Cotton, with field chants and blues laments, violence and tragedy. In this austerely beautiful landscape,
by 1902, Reconstruction is being encroached upon by Jim Crow. And in the town of Loring, the tenure of a black postmistress is compromised when the prodigal son of a once mighty planting family returns home. A gambler run
out of luck and a great many venues, he finds his diminished prospects as unappealing as the political moderation of his brother, now both mayor and editor of the newspaper. Their fraternal tension quickly spreads through the countryside--some citizens striving for the better world ostensibly promised, others for the vestigial antebellum order. Caught squarely in the center of this tortured dynamic is the postmistress herself, her fate further complicated when President Roosevelt, on federal grounds, intervenes personally.
And so this local, even familial dispute inevitably erupts, fueled by all the dark, brutal memories of slavery, civil war and emancipation. In this crucible of race relations and mythology, people black and white alike are tested relentlessly by history and human nature, by passions at once ambivalent and fierce. And with this masterful novel, Steve Yarbrough confronts character with morality, love with hatred, reason with blood--and with great authority and compassion he extends a rich tradition of our national literature.
HThe South depicted in Steve Yarbrough's haunting new novel irresistibly calls to mind Yeats's famous lines, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity." The best and worst, in this case, are brothers who, despite their common upbringing, are diametrically opposed on issues of race. Tandy Payne, who returns to Loring, Miss., in the early 20th century after squandering his inheritance on gambling, whores and liquor, has absorbed all the hypocrisy and racism of the old South. Loring's mayor, Tandy's brother, Leighton, stands 6'5", harbors liberal opinions and is handicapped by a perpetual awkwardness. He runs Loring's newspaper and uses it as a platform for moderation. Yarbrough divides his story between the Payne siblings and Seaborn and Loda Jackson, who are black. Loda is the town's postmistress, the only African-American in the state with a government appointment. Tandy covets her job, and he decides to steal it by starting a race-baiting campaign, claiming Loda encouraged a black laborer to behave insolently. To prevent conflict, Loda resigns, but Theodore Roosevelt's administration decides to make a civil rights stand by not accepting her resignation. In the escalating dispute, Leighton becomes a pariah for siding with Loda. Connecting Loda, Tandy and Leighton is their common father, Sam, a plantation owner who massacred a group of black men and women who tried to escape the Delta in the 1880s. Based on a real 1902 incident, Yarborough's sad, elegantly wrought story proceeds like a mesmerizing lesson in the skewed logic of violence, and it builds to a powerful ending, a tragic testament to the dark heritage haunting the South. Yarbrough, who earned critical kudos with The Oxygen Man, has again written a novel that resonates with understanding and compassion. (May 7)Forecast: While his subject matter is somber, Yarbrough's restrained narrative pulls the reader into its time and place with beautifully calibrated suspense. Critical recognition that he's a writer to watch should bring attention to this novel.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 12, 2002
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Excerpt from Visible Spirits by Steve Yarbrough
The mud on Main Street was half a foot deep and mixed with enough horse shit to make him wish he had something to clamp over his nose. But he'd lost his handkerchief on the train coming up, and anyway, it was stained with blood: in New Orleans a fellow had punched him in the mouth. He couldn't remember who it was, though he did recall how much it hurt.
A supply wagon loaded with hundred-pound sacks of feed grain and hog shorts waited in front of Rosenthal's General Merchandise, and a couple horses were tied up in front of the hardware. But he knew, because he knew his brother, that Leighton would already be in--he'd probably been at the office since five or five-thirty. He went to bed every night at nine o'clock and rose at four so he could get an hour's worth of reading done before setting to work. He'd always done that and always would, especially now that he had two jobs instead of one.
The legend on the window said loring weekly times. The building had once been a saloon, but that closed down back in '96
when the drys won the local option election. Leighton had played a role in their favor, editorializing at length, arguing that the whole community should be outraged at the sight of drunks staggering along the sidewalk, bumping into women.
Through the window this morning, Tandy could see him sitting at his rolltop desk, back where the poker tables used to be, reading a big leather-bound volume. He wore a gray suit, and Tandy knew the suit was clean and fresh-smelling, that the collar of his white shirt had been pressed this very morning. He knew who had pressed it, too.
The door was unlocked; he opened it and stepped inside. Blank sheets of newspaper were stacked on the floor near an old copper-plated handpress, and on the counter were metal baskets with copy in them. A Western Newspaper Union calendar hung on one wall. Instead of smelling like cigarettes and whiskey, as it used to, the place stank now of ink and dust.
Leighton didn't even look up. "I was wondering when I'd hear from you," he said.
Tandy stomped each boot on the floor, and clots of mud flew off.
Leighton laid the book down. He stared at Tandy's boots. "Most folks would've stomped the mud off outside."
"Course, I'm not most folks. I'm family."
Leighton stood. As always, when Tandy had been away for a while, the size of his brother took him by surprise. Tandy was not a small man himself, but Leighton stood six foot five, an inch taller than their father, and even though he lacked their father's weight, he could still fill a room by himself. When Leighton was present, Tandy felt he had less of everything--less space to move around in, less air to breathe.
A big lightbulb hung from the ceiling. Pointing, Tandy said, "I heard y'all had got electric power."
The civic booster in his brother asserted itself: you could almost see his chest swell. "Got it last fall. Right now, it's only on from six till midnight, but that's a big help to us on Wednesday evening, when we're actually printing the paper." He smiled and crossed his arms. "You hear what happened over at the livery stables?"
"Uncle Billy Heath decided he needed him some electric power. Said he wanted to be able to check on his horses without worrying about toting a coal-oil lamp in there and having one of 'em kick it over and set the whole place afire. So he had Loring Light, Ice and Coal string a cable in and suspend a big old bulb from the rafters. When they turned on the power, all the horses went crazy. They kicked open the stall doors and took off down Main Street. One of 'em ran right over Uncle Billy. Broke his arm in two places."
Tandy laughed. Eight or ten years ago, in a poker game in this very building, Uncle Billy Heath had beaten him out of a good-looking saddlebred mare. Tandy had owned the mare for only three or four hours before losing her, and it pleased him now to think maybe she was the one who'd broken Uncle Billy's arm.