A searing tale of racial hatreds and redemption in the modern South, courtesy of Southern storyteller extraordinaire Iles (The Devil’s Punchbowl, 2009, etc.).
Natchez didn’t burn in the Civil War, having surrendered to the Yankees while its neighbors endured scarifying sieges. It burns in Iles’ pages, though, since so many of the issues sounded a century and a half ago have yet to be resolved. Some of Natchez’s more retrograde residents find it difficult to wrap their heads around the idea that men and women of different races might want to spend time together, occasioning, in the opening episode, a “Guadalcanal barbecue,” as one virulent separate-but-unequal proponent puts it. The Double Eagles, an even more violent offshoot of the KKK, has been spreading its murderous idea of justice through the neighborhood for a long time, a fact driven home for attorney/politico Penn Cage when the allegation rises that his own father is somehow implicated in the dark events of 1964—and, as Iles’ slowly unfolding story makes clear, not just of that long-ago time, but in the whispered, hidden things that followed. As Penn investigates, drawing heat, he runs into plenty of tough customers, some with badges, some with swastikas, as well as the uncomfortable fact that his heroic father may indeed have feet of clay. Iles, a longtime resident of Natchez, knows his corner of Mississippi as well as Faulkner and Welty knew theirs, and he sounds true notes that may not be especially meaningful for outsiders—for one thing, that there’s a profound difference between a Creole and a Cajun, and for another, that anyone whose first three names are Nathan Bedford Forrest may not be entirely trustworthy when looking into hate crimes. His story is long in the telling (and with at least two more volumes coming along to complete it), but a patient reader will find that the pages scoot right along without missing a beat.
Iles is a master of regional literature, though he’s dealing with universals here, one being our endless thirst to right wrongs. A memorable, harrowing tale.