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[whitespace] Fall Guy: Jeffrey Lent delivers a first novel in the mold of William Faulkner but with a much deeper sense of the sound and fury of African American experience in the segregated South.

Lifting the Veil

Jeffrey Lent's 'In the Fall' outpaces even Faulkner in its examination of race relations

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

MISSISSIPPIAN William Faulkner is celebrated as one of the greatest American novelists, not for the least part because his novels so often dealt with the greatest of American dilemmas: race and racism. In A Light in August, for example, he expertly displays the destructive and self-destructive nature of racial prejudice through the story of Joe Christmas, a white-appearing man who (almost certainly mistakenly) is led to believe that his father was black.

Faulkner had only one blind spot on race, in fact: He didn't understand black people. Born in 1897 at the height of segregationist terrorism and anti-black violence, he died in 1962 at a time when lunch counters and public transportation and school campuses were still divided on the basis of race.

African American characters abound in Faulkner's novels, and they live, but only dimly, in blackface, from the other side of a segregated veil that the author was never able to penetrate. And so these brilliant books (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Intruder in the Dust, etc.) are all flawed, incomplete, a one-sided look at a two-sided mirror.

One can only wonder what insights into our national character this talented man might have given us if he'd been born in another time, living in today's world, where the African American community is not some hidden fortress in the forest where white writers are unable to go.

Wonder no more.

Vermont novelist Jeffrey Lent's debut work, In the Fall, is as close to a Faulknerian novel as we're going to get, as rich and beautifully dense as the original, but without the Mississippian's sociological hangups. Lent, a white writer, is able to see the racial divide from both sides of the chasm, as well as from down its passionate middle. This is no first-time novel, or at least it doesn't act like one. This is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

In the Fall is rooted in the great national "secret" that sex between African American women and white men was a common occurrence in the supposedly segregated South (I put "secret" in quotes because this was never a secret to African Americans; it is only white folks who seem to be shocked that Thomas Jefferson lay down with Sally Hemmings).

LENT'S BOOK BEGINS in war-blasted Virginia, when a wounded white Union soldier, Norman Pelham, is saved by an African American woman, Leah, who is fleeing from a terrible incident in her North Carolina home. She confesses to having killed a white man--her half-brother by her slavemaster father--when he tried to rape her.

Norman and Leah marry and return to Norman's Vermont home. While the novel follows their family through two more generations, into the Depression, it never strays far from its dark Carolina beginnings, driving first Leah and then their grandson back to discover the truth of their roots.

Generational novels are always the trickiest to handle. Generally, the initial characters are the most interesting, and when they die off, the novel sags on the backs of its grandchildren. But Lent pulls the form off masterfully, giving each generation its own story while drawing the secret of Leah's past through the story like a street trickster pulling a paper dollar on a string.

This is a novel that is a masterpiece on all fronts: character, setting, plot, tone--you pick it. The historical detail is astonishing, as Lent gives all of the intricacies of life as the country slips from its horse-and-buggy agrarian past to its motorized urban present. And like Faulkner's, Lent's words are always pure poetry:

    And still not speaking as they lay apart on the bed gathering their wind back and each benumbed and someway still joined and already each alone, the afternoon light through the windows where the sun fell over the floor, the room hot and still enough to hear the settle of the other's limbs against the mangled sheets. They lay a time like that, on their backs, just not touching, neither willing nor wanting to speak, and then he stood off the bed and she followed him and they went back through the house and she gathered up towels spread over the backs of kitchen chairs to dry from days before and they went one beside the other along the path they'd made through the thick boles of the widely spaced evergreens, across the sheep meadow and over the fence, down along the river to the bend where they always came. She sat up on the ledge of rock and watched him swim and then came in after him so they both came out of the river at the same time, hair slicked back and bodies tingling and for just a moment shining with heat and water like spun honey before the air began to dry them and even then they were still silent but lay back on the towels spread on the boulder.

Lent's publisher is hyping In the Fall as "an extraordinary first novel which bears no resemblance to a first novel," and an "experience [of] honesty in literature to the fullest." This is one time you can believe the hype.

In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent; Atlantic Monthly Press; 542 pages; $25 cloth.

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From the April 26-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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