Published posthumously, Marius’s last is a brilliant though overcrowded story about a young southerner’s violent coming-of-age.
It’s Bible Belt Tennessee in the years just after WWII, a place where fundamentalism controls things merely in the religious but in every sense. Nevertheless, a handful of closet radicals have managed to sustain themselves and are keeping their heads down here and there in Bourbon County. Charles Alexander, barely 20, is one of them, though he has yet to fully acknowledge his apostasy even to himself. In fact, as far as family and friends are concerned, his sights remain set on the Baptist ministry. Now, however, skepticism has begun to erode faith. Moreover, he’s fallen in love with an avowed radical, a quintessentially rational young woman who regards all organized religion as absurd, the product of ignorance and/or self-delusion. And then, while conflicting ideas make battlefields of his mind and heart, Charles experiences the event that at first traumatizes him but eventually serves as his crucible: he watches as one of the Kirbys, in thrall to the mountain man’s code, shoots down his adulterous wife and her lover. In the next moment, Kirby presses his revolver against Charles’s temple, saying: “I’ve got to kill you, too, boy.” Inexplicably, however, he doesn’t, thus letting the sole witness to his crime go free. Kirby’s arrest and trial follow swiftly; reluctantly, Charles testifies against him. In doing so, he becomes instant hero to many and pariah to some. And to himself a torment until he finally arrives at the kind of insight that permits a resolution.
That Marius (After the War, 1992, etc.), who died in 1999, could create a vivid cast of characters is made clear once again. But this is a book chock-a-block with characters, the vivid and the prosaic getting virtually equal treatment.