A Georgia college professor attempts to escape the ghosts of history in Stewart’s debut novel.
Atlanta, 1996: the Olympics have just left town, and historian Travis Hemperly has returned there to take up a temporary teaching position at a historically black college. The white Hemperly’s previous teaching experience includes three years at the University of Minnesota followed by a year of performing Viking re-enactments at a tourist destination in Newfoundland, Canada—neither of which has sufficiently prepared him for a career in what Abraham Baldwin Longman, one of his new colleagues, jokingly refers to as “Blackademia”: “Travis is out of his element. He has never taught on a historically black campus, has never been a minority on any piece of real estate he has ever set foot on.” It’s a difficult transition, though one that Travis is willing to make if only because there aren’t many other options for him in the shrinking academic market. Despite cultural differences and disparate sensitivities, things begin to improve—until another colleague discovers that Travis’ conspiracy-obsessed father, Henry Hemperly, hosts the racist AM-radio call-in show “Confederate Talk Radio.” What’s more, a discussion of lynching reminds Travis of a story that his father told him when he was boy about an event Henry witnessed in the tiny village of Haylow, where a man was tied to a tree and murdered with an ax. In order to remain in his new position, Travis will have to come to terms with some history outside his area of specialization—that of his family and that of the South. Stewart tells Travis’ story in lucid, observant prose (“There is a lot to look at up in the sky tonight, a lot of action going on in the cosmos….All of this astronomical activity must mean something, so it seems like the right night for an appeal to the universe”), and he gives his novel a buoyant satirical gloss without teetering too far into ridiculousness. His characters are well-drawn and generally quite complex—even the largely unsympathetic ones—and the dialogue in particular crackles with personality. The book does drag in some sections and might have been improved with a bit of condensing. Even so, it represents an amusing and sometimes quite scathing look at academia, racial tensions, and the oppressive weight of the past that still characterizes life in the South.
A funny, thoughtful campus tale.