Monday, March 5, 2018

A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley

Anchor Books, 1990
originally published 1962
240 pp


William Melvin Kelley is an author I discovered while reading the January 29, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.  Before that, I'd never even heard of this man, although after finishing this book I'll be looking to read more of his work.  Two things caught my eye in the New Yorker article: first, the title: "The Lost Giant of American Literature," and then the question that immediately follows:
"A major black novelist made a remarkable debut. How did he disappear?"
Always intrigued by a mystery -- in this case three: who was William Melvin Kelley, why had I never heard of him if he was a "major black novelist," and finally, the question of how he disappeared -- I combed through the article and became even more intrigued when Kathryn Schulz started to describe Kelley's A Different Drummer.  This part was really all I needed to read before hitting the "add to cart" button on Amazon:
"Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy -- not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our own national culture." 
I hadn't even finished the article and the book was on its way to my house.

William Melvin Kelley in 2012; from The New York Times

While I'm not going to divulge many details here, what is most stunning about this book is that given the theme, the story is revealed through the eyes of the white residents of this fictional town, set in a fictional Southern state.  Their narratives try to account for the reasons why one day Tucker Caliban (as revealed on the back cover blurb)
"... a quiet, determined descendant of a magnificent African chief brought to America in chains...for no apparent reason ... salts his fields, burns down his house, kills his livestock, and heads, with his wife and child, for parts unknown -- an act that sets off an unexpected mass exodus of the state's entire black population."
These narratives from the white residents of the town also uncover their thinking on how they process the behavior of the African-Americans in this book, and more importantly, how their own relationships with African-Americans reflect their own needs at different times.  It is both heartbreaking and haunting; but on the other hand, Tucker Caliban is one of the most courageous literary figures I've encountered in some time; he is the epitome of dignity and pride, a silent leader whose actions speak much louder than words ever could.

This book could likely be the focus of a graduate seminar, and there is so much to be found in here that I can't begin to scratch its surface in just words and there is a lot which even after two reads I'm sure I've missed. I won't kid you -- this is not an easy book to read and answers are not simply handed to readers on a plate.  However, it is one of the most thought-provoking novels I've had in my hands recently; it also, although written in the early 1960s, remains extremely relevant.  Highly recommended.

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