Debrot’s debut novel considers the achievement and futility of the activist left.
In 1969, historically black Baxter University in sleepy Colonus, North Carolina, is home to a nascent political organization called the Alliance, dedicated to uniting the disparate regional factions of the fractured civil rights movements. The first step is to recruit potential leaders to Baxter’s faculty. One is Vincent Brown, an ambitious black activist from Brooklyn, impressive but proud, distracted, and unafraid of confrontation. Another is Jim Allen, a young, white great-books scholar from the Bronx whose involvement in the movement started completely by accident. The two men hold differing beliefs concerning education, method, and ideology (with a few personal grievances thrown in for good measure). They share an unlikely role model in the form of Thomas Doswell, an old black professor and agitator who teaches the great books at Baxter. Doswell’s personal history with the left, from the labor movement in New Jersey to Communist Moscow to Germany during the rise of Nazism, provides a complex guide to how a man might try to be a positive force for change and whether such change is even possible. Debrot writes in mannered prose that harkens back to the period of Doswell’s youth: plodding, deliberative, highly analytical. That said, the slow narrative style grows on the reader, like the idiosyncrasies of a lecturer; after all, campus novels are about ideas and academics more than action and intrigue (though some intrigue does pop up before too long). The book has an original shape: 50 or 100 or 150 pages in, the reader has no real idea where it’s going, though Debrot inspires enough confidence that the leisurely journey is a welcome one. Doswell’s unlikely back story makes up the true heart of the book, breathing life into some forgotten corners of American history and reminding readers of the human lives among marchers of every political movement. Debrot hasn’t just written an engaging campus novel; he plots the limitations of progressive activism in the 20th century.
An immersive, wide-ranging novel of impressive depth and candor.