A Southern son searches for a long-lost friend amid the racial tensions of the 1960s in Valentine’s (Dark Epiphany, 2000, etc.) latest novel.
In 1970, Southern journalist Arlis Morrow goes on a mission after his mother, on her deathbed, reveals that his childhood friend, Jesse, once saved her from a snakebite. His act of bravery remained secret, however, because Jesse was black, and Arlis’ father was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. Arlis’ mother’s dying wish is for her son to find out what happened to Jesse. The mission is tough, however, as he can’t remember Jesse’s last name, and his neighbors are little help. A whole cast of characters, black and white, try to dissuade him from digging around in the past, but their resistance only makes him search harder. He tells everyone that he wants to write about the divergence of his and Jesse’s lives, how the civil rights movement and the disorder of the 1960s have impacted them both; his goal, he says, is “to trace the life of just one single person…and place its imprint on another single human being.” It’s a fascinating idea and a plausible pitch but seems strikingly modern and suggests hindsight that readers may not find believable for the time, as the story takes place only two years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. However, Arlis has other motives for finding Jesse, as he suspects that Jesse may have some information about his father’s mysterious death two years earlier. At times, the story could use some editing; for example, one single paragraph clocks in at four pages long. The book is largely well-written, however; the characters are well-rounded, and Valentine is wonderfully committed to the language and landscape of the South. However, Arlis’ many interactions are often similar—he meets initial resistance from nearly everyone he meets, and then receives an explanation, vague information and a warning. By the end, readers may be eager for Arlis to find Jesse just so something new will happen.
An ambitious but often unexciting mystery and investigation of Southern race relations.