Monday, November 5, 2012

Time's Witness

by Michael Malone

The sequel to Uncivil Seasons.  This time, it is Cuddy Mangum, now police chief in Hillston, who is the narrator, and the eccentric scion of North Carolina aristocracy Justin Savile, now married and an expectant father, is relegated to a minor role.  In this novel, George Hall, a black man on Death Row for the murder seven years previously of an off-duty white cop in a bar in the black side of town, is given an unexpected reprieve by the governor.  The governor is running for reelection against war hero Andrew Brookside, whose heiress wife, Lee, just happens to be an old flame of Cuddy’s and whom he still loves desperately.  When Hall’s brother, a vocal activist, is shot and killed, Cuddy starts to uncover a vast web of conspiracy and crime, from gun smuggling out of a rich paper magnate’s factory, to political intrigues by white power militia yahoos, to attempted blackmail of the philandering Brookside, to underhanded brinksmanship by the governor.  After Cuddy’s friend, larger-than-life attorney Isaac Rosethorn, gets George Hall a new trial, some of these secrets threaten to come into the light, and Cuddy is targeted by the now-fugitive rogue cops.

Over 535 pages with a cast of dozens, this opus evokes not just the south, or the American justice system, but all of life’s rich pageant: the tattered glory of very old, very rich families who believe their money grants them superiority; the casual racism of the populace; the institutionalized racism of the death penalty, especially in the south; the dizzying highs and crushing lows of love won and lost.  There are no “good guys,” and characters who come into conflict with Cuddy are not straw men but fully realized characters who have their own ideals and morals.  Characters get married, have children, die; Cuddy tries to maintain his equilibrium as he walks a fine line between his affair with Lee, providing protection to Brookside, who has been getting death threats, and uncovering possible malfeasance in his lover’s husband’s campaign.  Malone is a fine writer, capable of pathos, Wodehousian wit (“Fattie’s whole body, of which there was an unbridled glut, relaxed with a shiver…”), action, suspense, romance, and deep perspicacity.  Malone doesn’t shy away from any issues; the novel culminates in a searing courtroom speech at Hall’s retrial, then quietly notes that about a month after this sensationalist event, another black man was executed without fanfare.  This may not be the Great American Novel, but it’s a contender for the Great American Novel About Justice.

five stars

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