October 3, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
THE YEAR OF JUBILO
Henry Holtn New York, 2000, $25.00.
Howard Bahr's first novel, THE BLACK FLOWER, which won the Harold D. Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and which was A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW Notable Book, takes place during and after the battle of Franklin, Tennessee. His second novel follows the experiences of Gawain Harper as he returns home to Cumberland, Mississippi, to find the town and the surrounding country in a dismal state: Defeat and deprivation would be enough to discourage Gawain, but he finds his home town in another Civil War, a war that must be settled before he can move ahead to restore his own life.
The novel opens with a twelve-year-old blind boy who lost his sight when he was five and who imagines a world more beautiful than the one he inhabits, a world based on imagined images that draw upon what he can remember from his early years. His imagination creates images of a visionary artist: "He had these things in his memory, but he had changed many of them to suit his own sense (snow, for example, was golden; fire was a weaving, threadlike creature of silver), and he had never accounted for his own growth, so the people, to Willy Landers, were gaunt, towering, and the rooms of his house were like great caverns."
The action that follows Willy's introduction is made more tragic by his sightless recording of what happens when a gang of vigilantes invade the yard to kill his parents and the family's dogs, burn his house and take him away to dump him on a hillside, disoriented and hearing his mother's voice calling him into the woods.
Willy's blindness and innocence set up a theme of tragic helplessness against the arrogance and insane will to power of "King" Solomon Gault, the leader of his own army he has formed to force his will on a town weakened by war, disillusionment, loss of loved ones and the need for revenge. Blindness is a condition that plagues men throughout the novel, both the good and the bad.
Gawain's love for Morgan Rhea has sent him to war, for her father told him that he could never have Morgan as his wife if he did not join up and fight against the North, the enemy. Gawain is reluctant to fight for a cause he questions, unable to see the point of the war. Again, he must be involved in a war, the local war, if he is to have Morgan. Willy's mother was Morgan's sister, and the family must avenge her death, with Gawain's help.
Gawain has had enough of killing. He had been a professor of literature at a girl's school before the war, a mild, sympathetic and idealistic man. He has been forced to kill so that he could live, and now he must involve himself in more death. After he has killed one man of Gault's army in self-defense, Morgan, who has just delivered a sermon on the futility of violence and pride to the men who support Gawain in his efforts to defeat Gault, re-acts with anger to him. He assures her, "I take no joy in it, if that's what you think." When she questions him, he thinks, "No,...I am not sure."
Finally, Morgan decides, "I think you must do what you must. I think I want it to be over with, so we can start again." Her words express the feelings of Gawain, giving him permission to fight in one more war, one he can feel justified in fighting.
The resolution of the conflict involves many characters vividly presented in a cross-section of humanity. Good and evil battle each other constantly, sometimes in the conscience of individual characters. The Civil War has changed many, and the local war continues to affect many. When it is over, the plot's threads are woven together into a balanced pattern, imperfect and worn, but good enough for life to move on for those who are still alive.
This novel explores the roots of violence and the source of good that overcomes it. It also provides a realistic view of life in the South at the end of the Civil War within an exciting adventure, a real thriller. Bahr's two novels are significant additions to Southern Literature in terms of his way with words, his characters, his dialogue and his understanding of human motivations. Watch for the acclaim that is certain to follow the latest.
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