Tupelo by Alec Clayton / 350 pages / paperback / 978-1537475370
Tupelo is Alec Clayton’s eighth book. I have read most of them, if not all. I have watched his writing carefully. We both are painters and writers. In fact, I met Alec when he reviewed my first painting show back in 1994 in Tacoma, Washington, “The City of Destiny” as it is known. He was the arts writer for a local-events paper, a good one.
That was before he wrote his first book, before he reclaimed his memories of boyhood and coming of age in the deep culture of post-war Mississippi. The other books are full of interesting characters and situations particular to the south in many ways but not to the extent that Tupelo is.
In Tupelo Alec allowed himself to be that boy and young man again, and to be that entirely and unapologetically, to own it. And own it he does. He delivers the expressions, the nuances of deep southern culture, with a voice in perfect pitch, never missing a beat. They are as integrated into the story as white on rice.
Inevitably, one of the great themes of the book is the racial divide, how black and white interact with such complexity, mixing love, affection, fear, and hate. Alec explores this more like a poet than a sociologist, leaving us satisfied in a peculiar way because truth is satisfying although not necessarily comfortable. More telling than all the words I have ever read about racism is Alec’s story that tells of living its ironic beauty, its cruelties, its ignorance, and its heartbreaks. He brings the reader inside the feelings and tensions of the people involved in a deeply personal way.
There are many beautiful things about this book. He made a master stroke right from the beginning, in the conception of it all, by having the twin brother Kevin tell the story from the grave. That allowed for the story to be told from the first person and from the omniscient observer at the same time with no shocks to the reader, seamless and smooth. One minute Kevin can be sitting out on the curb looking up at a window of the house where Wanda is dressing and the next moment he is in the room watching her, knowing her thoughts and describing her situation, listening to the conversation she is having with her mother. As the reader, you don’t even notice this unless, as an appreciator of literature, as a writer, you just note it and applaud its brilliance.
Because of the natural beauty of Alec Clayton’s prose, and the flow of the narrative, it is easy to miss the stunning craft this writer has mastered over eight fine books. The roll of the prose is like the big river itself moving smoothly forward carrying us along, reminding me of Mark Twain at his best, those special days when Huck and Jim shared a log raft on the Mississippi and were free and full of life in the southern sun.
There were so many places where the plot could have been manipulated in some predictable way, so many ways it could have been more dramatic here or there. With great discipline and restraint, the writer stayed true to what’s real, that things don’t always end with a bang, that situations hang with tension in the air, that life goes on pretty much the way it always has, not the great ecstasy or the great tragedy but some of both. And this sense of restraint allows the reader to trust and enter more fully into the story without fearing some cruel, surprising jolt coming from out of the blue.
Time passes in the story, a lifetime passes. Things change as they inevitably do and usually not for the best. Systems fall apart; this is entropy. There is a good writer named Rohinton Mistry, whose first book, A Fine Balance, won many awards. It is a great work up to a certain point and then, perhaps having heard about entropy, Mr. Mistry goes about destroying every good thing about the characters, situations, and relationships he has so beautifully created. I still hate him for that. In discussing this destruction with others, I have heard them say, “But that is the way it is.” I don’t buy it. And Alec Clayton does not buy it either because most of his people are still standing, metaphorically, at the end of the story even if they are not there anymore. And the ending is unusual, surprising, moving, and as satisfying as stark naked honesty must always be.
Watching the evolution of Alec Clayton’s writing over the past twenty years has been like watching a long-distance runner who starts from behind but slowly, as the race goes on, starts picking off the runners ahead, gaining strength as time passes until he crosses the finish line ahead of the pack. Bravo!