The Evening Road
By: Laird Hunt
Publisher: Little, Brown
More info: amazon.com
“The Evening Road,” a strangely mythic follow-up to Boulder author Laird Hunt’s much-praised 2014 novel “Neverhome,” is set in Jim Crow-era Indiana, but in some ways it echoes Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
The first part of the book resembles, albeit in less apocalyptic terms, the odyssey of the Bundren clan in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” When pretty young Ottie Lee Henshaw’s boss giddily announces that there will be a “rope party” for several black men accused of burning down houses and “running rampage over the countryside” — based on the historical case that inspired the poem and Billie Holiday-recorded song, “Strange Fruit” — she is swept along on a current of humanity flowing toward a celebration of violent retribution.
Along the way, Ottie Lee, her crude, groping boss, Bud, and her husband, Dale, will stop to eat catfish, be forced to walk when their car breaks down and wind up at a prayer service opposing the lynchings. Hunt is less interested in the scenery than in what goes on in Ottie Lee’s mind as she considers her life.
The novel draws a fairly unambiguous line between Bud’s excitement over the coming event and his assertion of sexual ownership over Ottie Lee, who has learned to tolerate his attentions in exchange for continued employment.
“Bud was excited, what with the lynching to get to and all, so he went straight from putting his hand on my leg to making his try on me,” Ottie Lee reports.
Ottie Lee spends little time thinking about the ramifications of the lynching, focusing instead on her own travails, making her complicit in the crime.
“I’m dead,” she thinks after hurling herself on the ground when shots are fired. “I’m lying here dead in my grave and will never rise again. The map is gone with the wagon and I got shot and didn’t know it and now I’m as dead as those three boys in their tree. Maybe I’m hanging next to them.”
The second part switches to the point of view of a 16-year-old African American girl Calla Destry, who is moving away from the violence even as Ottie Lee moves toward it. Calla is headed down to the river, where she plans to meet her less-than-honorable white lover, and will wind up in some of the same places as Ottie Lee. Where Ottie Lee can afford to be disinterested in the violence, Calla cannot. It is a real and present danger.
“Christ the carpenter had been thirsty and they had given him vinegar to drink. Held it up to his mouth with a long stick,” she thinks. “What is it about cornsilks gave them the idea they needed to lift people into the air to kill them? Their saints and their sinners both. Cornflowers did their killing on the ground.”
Which brings us to an awkward choice made by Hunt, presumably to avoid using language and epithets that you might associate with the lynching of black men in 1920: He refers to white people as “cornsilks” and black people as “cornflowers.”
I realize that I’m speaking from a position of privilege as an English-speaking white, straight male, but I’ve always subscribed to the Lenny Bruce school of thought: We can give words, ugly as they may be, too much power. The author’s curious choice serves only to prettify, or perhaps worse, neuter, the ugliest kind of racial violence — would Faulkner’s novels have more impact if we scrubbed them of all offensive language? I hope this isn’t a trend.
“The Evening Road” once more shows Hunt’s particular skills with language and impressive ability to craft strong female characters. Like much of Faulkner’s greatest work, it takes a certain amount of concentration to keep up, but it’s worth the effort.
Clay Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org