A violent and sorrowful Jim Crow South brims in this brutal novel.
For his 17th book, poet and novelist Smith creates a harrowing, luminous Jim Crow story that takes its title from “a negro name, Ginny Gall, for the hell beyond hell, hell’s hell.” The terrain is so frequently hellish—lynchings, firebombings, beatings, rapes—that one wonders how Smith stomached the work. His writing, in its lyricism, makes a queasy juxtaposition between horror and beauty. The story hinges on a reimagining of the Scottsboro Boys trials, in which nine African-American youth were railroaded on false rape charges. This novel begins “on the hot July day in 1913 exactly fifty years after the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a day uncelebrated in Chattanooga.” A prostitute named Cappie Florence gives birth to her fourth child, Delvin Walker, who becomes the Bigger Thomas–like protagonist here. The birth is perilous, the child—who reads at an astonishingly early age—is pronounced “wonderanemous,” and the reader is gulled into thinking the story might be picaresque. Instead, Cappie flees police before Page 20 when Delvin isn’t yet 5. He and his siblings are dumped into a foundling home, but the resourceful child finds himself, some two years later, apprenticed to a prosperous African-American funeral home director. Smith divides his novel into four books, and to start Book 2, he conjures a racial misunderstanding that puts teenage Delvin on the road at the cusp of the Great Depression. The adolescent traveler, like this novel, is ruminative, and for long stretches, his story is more pastoral than propulsive. Smith writes lushly, with a painterly eye. He depicts a mesmerizing, theologically rich funeral for a lynched man; Delvin’s yearning for a college girl with whom he has one afternoon of rapturous conversation is achingly, gorgeously executed. Everywhere racism chars these pages. By Book 3, armed white men have forced Delvin and his doomed cohort off a Memphis-bound train. The writing can be a touch ripe: here is a man without consequence shutting a door in the street: “The sound was like a last clap of a civilization closing up.” Still, for the resilient reader, a spell is cast.
A riveting protagonist moves through unbearable racial carnage into a kind of legend.