The death of a federal judge in 1968 leads the narrator of Wintner’s novel to contemplate and challenge race divisions in the South.
“Segregation is per se inequality,” wrote federal judge J. Waties Waring in a 1951 dissenting opinion in Briggs vs. Elliott—a statement that both helped pave the way for Brown vs. Board of Education and made Waring a much-maligned figure among the white elite in his hometown of Charleston, S.C. Wintner’s novel is an extended act of speculation about the reasons behind Waring’s transformation from segregationist to integrationist, told by a colleague, Arthur Covingdale, who undergoes his own transformation after Waring’s funeral. The story suggests that Waring’s public repudiation of segregation was actually an act of revenge against those who shunned him after his divorce from his first wife, Annie Gammell, a closeted lesbian; “Annie Gammell’s poor performance as a heterosexual wife may have been the original source of integration in the South,” Covingdale observes. Secrets abound—Covingdale, for example, burned a cross in front of Waring’s home—but Wintner (Toucan Whisper, Toucan Sing, 2002, etc.) approaches the plot points messily, drifting into dialect-heavy scenes and slow, wry depictions of Southern life. Eventually, Covingdale begins to fall for Aníse, the black cousin of Jim Cohen, one of Waring’s pallbearers, and their budding romance is meant to reveal the decades of prejudice that afflicted the Old South. But making sense of it requires the reader to navigate overheated, overwritten passages that, for all their finery, don’t make Covingdale and Aníse’s relationship convincing. Indeed, when Wintner descends into purple prose—Aníse’s sexual attentions are allegedly as “thorough as the drubbing Grant gave Lee at Appomattox”—the effect is quite the opposite.
An overwrought excursion into the swamp of Southern race relations.