Inordinately busy first novel by the Texan author of The Least You Need to Know (stories: 1996).
It begins wonderfully, establishing the contrasting but intertwined existences of two families in the West Texas town of Denton during the 1920s. Yardman Little Washington Jones lives with his feisty wife, Eugie, and daughter Camellia in the peaceful black ghetto of Quakertown. Little’s primary employer, wealthy white businessman Andrew Bell, resides “up the hill” on Oak Street; his wife drinks “tonic” for her nerves, and his son, Kizer, is crippled. Martin quickly establishes a network of complex relationships, exploring his characters’ public and secret lives in both present action and extended flashbacks. Camellia, a light-skinned schoolteacher, falls in love with feisty black war veteran Ike Mattoon but can’t forget Kizer, a childhood friend who has always loved her. There’s also a relationship with a white man buried in Eugie’s past life, and every imaginable chicken comes home to roost when goodhearted Mr. Bell stands up to the Ku Klux Klan and spearheads a plan to buy out Quakertown’s homeowners at fair prices and move them to even greener pastures, some distance from downtown Denton. Ike’s refusal to truckle to racial prejudice, Kizer’s determination to have Camellia even if she’s another man’s wife, Andrew Bell’s frustrated benevolence, and the Candide-like Little’s earth-wisdom (“Treat a flower or a tree right, and it makes your life pretty”) are all cruelly tested. A threatened abortion, an accidental fatal shooting, at least one too many ponderously symbolic conflagrations, and the climactic release of Ike’s aggrieved violent impulses—these are only a few links in the chain of catastrophes that undermines the loving patience with which Martin, a fine stylist but a disastrous plotter, has created fully rounded characters deserving of a better fate than this novel’s ill-judged collapse into trite melodrama.
Based on a true story, we’re told, but Martin’s overheated plot keeps us from believing a word of it.