Blog about William Melvin Kelley’s first novel, A Different Drummer

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William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 debut novel A Different Drummer has eleven chapters. The first, and shortest, “The State,” opens like this:

AN EXCERPT from THE THUMB-NAIL ALMANAC . . . page 643;

An East South Central state in the Deep South, it is bounded on the north by Tennessee; east by Alabama; south by the Gulf of Mexico; west by Mississippi. 

I am a Southerner, and my brain turned into a wrangled wriggling squiggle trying to visualize where “the State” must be, before giving in to the next few lines that declare that “the  State’s” capital is Willson City (no such place of course), which is named after “Confederate General Dewey Willson…the chief architect of the two well-known victories at Bull’s Horn Creek and at Harmon’s Draw” (never happened).

And so well yeah Kelley has created his own Southern State, an amalgam of sin and poverty that sweats and skulks in the tradition of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Structurally, too, A Different Drummer recalls Faulkner’s work. Kelley makes his reader cobble the narrative together through myriad, rotating viewpoints—a white farmer, his son, porch talkers, and the members of the Willson family, the aristocratic descendants of Confederate General Dewey Willson, who make their living collecting rent.

We get the perspective of all four Willsons—daughter, brother, mother, and father—who put together a picture of a life entangled with the Calibans. The Calibans were the enslaved descendants of a mythical figure named “the African,” a kind of warrior-king who escapes slavery with his only child, only to be tracked for days and nights by Willson, who shoots him before he can dash the child’s brains to free him.

The Calibans work the Willsons’ land over decades, first as slaves and then as sharecroppers. This brings us to the novel’s central conceit. I’ll let the blurb of the Anchor reissue I read do the heavy lifting:

June, 1957. One hot afternoon in the backwaters of the Deep South, a young black farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, shoots his horse, burns his house, and heads north with his wife and child. His departure sets off an exodus of the state’s entire black population, throwing the established order into brilliant disarray. Told from the points of view of the white residents who remained, A Different Drummer stands, decades after its first publication in 1962, as an extraordinary and prescient triumph of satire and spirit.

I had neglected the blurb until now, and had somehow missed the key idea of the second-to-last line: Told from the points of view of the white residents.

Kelley’s tactic here is extraordinary, and ultimately painful. We first get an “average” citizen of Sutton (the central setting of the novel in our unnamed “state,” Harry Leland, whose sentiments of race probably track with those of the hypothetical white moderate MLK warned us about. Leland’s not a bad guy and he’s trying to make his son a decent human being, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

We meet that son next, and see the narrative through his young eyes. Kelley’s satiric edge is perhaps sharpest here. The menfolk call the boy “Mister Leland,” an irony underlined when Tucker Caliban—whom Mister Leland counts as a friend—addresses the lad as such. It’s Mister Leland too who accompanies Bennett Bradshaw (excuse me, “THE REVEREND B.T. BRADSHAW [of] THE RESURRECTED CHURCH OF THE BLACK JESUS CHRIST OF AMERICA, INC., NEW YORK CITY,” as his business card attests)—it’s Mister Leland who accompanies Bradshaw (and his chauffeur) to the site of Tucker Caliban’s salted-and-abandoned farm. Unlike the various perspective characters, Bradshaw, an intellectual, understands Caliban’s motivation—and envies his spirit.

Caliban’s primal rejection and refusal of the Southern Way of Life is the novel’s central problem, a “problem” that Kelley addresses somewhat obliquely through primarily white eyes. The various Willsons attempt to reckon with both past and present, but their tools are limited, for the most part. The novel’s penultimate chapter is a series of journal entries by David Willson, starting when he’s a young man off to attend an Ivy up in New England.

Young David attends a socialist meeting, but is bored with “nothing but a bunch of fellows showing each other how much they knew about Marx.” He meets—guess who!—Bennett Bradshaw, and falls fast for the guy. (I might be spoiling too much of the plot here—look, it’s a strong book, skip this and read it.)

Willson’ friendship with Bennett adds a strange ballast late in the narrative, tipping the book in a different trajectory than the course it seemed to have previously been taking. Willson is a tragic Faulknerian figure, an intellect who wishes absolution from his namesake’s sins, from the Sins of the South, but who is also beholden to and limited by the dictates of his own time. Bennett too is limited and beholden. It’s Tucker Caliban who breaks the chains.

A Different Drummer is not the narrative I expected to read. I found Kelley’s name looking for works by black American postmodernists, which is how I found Fran Ross’s Oreo—an utterly postmodern novel, carnivalesque, polyglossic, metatextual. (In her essay on Ross’s novel, Harryette Mullen compares Oreo to Kelley’s last novel, 1970’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres.A Different Drummer’s rotating cast of viewpoint characters and its shifts in point of view point toward postmodern polyglossia, but Kelley’s novel is anchored in a kind of Faulknerian modernism. The great trick of it all though is the ironic layering here, where the only strong truth seems to be Tucker Caliban’s renunciation of white supremacy.

And this renunciation angers and ashames novel’s constituents, summed up in its final chapter, “The Men on the Porch.” Here we have a short, devastating exclamation point to the whole affair, which might be easily characterized by Flannery O’Connor, who said that

I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

Born in New York City and educated at Harvard, Kelley was nevertheless attuned to Southern rhythms, Southern voices, Southern eyes. To steal more from O’Connor, “we find that the writer” — here, Kelley— “has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Kelley’s realism, in the end, hurts—it’s too grotesque, too real. But it’s powerful and powerfully-written. Highly recommended.

Books acquired, 1 July 2020

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Scored a copy of William Melvin Kelley’s first novel A Different Drummer the other week, along with a copy of Steve Erickson’s novel Rubicon Beach. I was looking for the Kelley; I was looking for a print edition of Erickson’s more recent novel Zeroville (which I loved in audiobook), but there wasn’t one. Still, I can’t resist a Vintage Contemporaries edition. I’d been looking for a copy of Clarence Major’s My Amputations for a while now with no luck; I eventually broke down and bought one on Abebooks for five bucks. It turned out to be an old library copy with no dust jacket. No one ever checked it out. Check it out.