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Colter (The Beach Umbrella, The Rivers of Eros, Night Studies, The Hippodrome) gives us an old-fashioned novel of good and evil, told by a narrator who doesn't care whether he's liked, just so long as he is heard. Meshach Barry left a small East Texas town and headed off to a black college in Tennessee during the Jim Crow 40's to fulfill his mother's dream that he become ""an upstanding, cultured minister."" But Barry is a hypocrite and opportunist--one who later achieves success as the Dean of Chapel at a prestigious white university but meets his professional downfall by misusing federal funds, and his personal downfall by seducing his own daughter. His own story emerges only obliquely--Barry is more concerned (or, rather, obsessed) with telling the tale of his college friend Rollo Ezekiel Lee (""Cager""), who dreams of forming a black army of resistance and spends his short, painfully confused life trying to perfect his strength and thereby his soul. Cager is a hero to Barry in spite of--or because of--his murder of a doyenne of white Southern racist respectability (a lady so proud that she won't even bend her knees to God, but prays sitting straight in her Hepplewhite chair) in a moment of insanity or inspiration. Barry (who emerges as a much more convincing character than his hero) sees his own crimes as those of an insect; Cager's crimes were those of a man. This moral vision is meant to trouble, not to persuade, presented in often dense prose, language that sometimes exasperates but mostly works well: Barry revels in Biblical cadences, in revealing his erudition as well as exposing his own phoniness and self-disgust. A cold, hard book to like--and many people won't--but at times offering a compelling fascination.

Pub Date: June 25th, 1988
Publisher: Thunder's Mouth--dist. by Consortium (213 E. 4 St., St. Paul, MN 55101)