A dark tale of racist violence and its aftermath, from British academic and critic Bigsby (Still Lives, 1996, etc.).
In Tennessee, at an unspecified moment in the 20th century, various elemental characters are brought together in a heavy moral fable of humanity, racism, redneck violence and dogged lawmaking. False accusations of rape in a country store lead to the lynching of Johnson, an innocent black man whose 14-year-old son James is struck dumb after witnessing the murder. Poor local field hand Jake Benchley, who tried to defend Johnson, is punished, too: beaten, burned and branded on the chest with letters to signify that he’s a “nigger lover.” James helps Jake to recover, then defends him when two of the lynch-mob’s inbred brothers threaten to shoot him, gunning them down instead. Now the mismatched pair goes on the run, with the rest of the brothers in hot pursuit as well as the sheriff, whose miraculous powers of deduction are on a par with the lynch-mob’s tracking skills and instinctive logic. Bigsby’s parable is melodramatic and breathless, generally more heavily focused on the bloody and busy, sometimes superhuman foreground action than the motivation behind events, although there are moments of introspection and lyrical, even sentimental reverie. All points of view are expressed, and all with some sympathy, although sometimes (especially in the dialogue) not all that authentically. The author’s message lies partly in the bond that develops between James and Jake, partly in the mood of inescapable doom that plays itself out in the final scene in Indian territory.
A brief, intense, self-conscious stab at an American tragedy.