In Yocum’s debut historical novel, an aging Texas aristocrat reveals the story of his triumph over an abusive childhood.
In 1998, a retired man of wealth and prominence visits Washington, D.C., for a ceremony commemorating his grown son’s public accomplishment, and he takes the opportunity to tell his privileged offspring his own long-suppressed life story. He spins a dark tale about his impoverished, Depression-era childhood in East Texas; his family consisted of a depraved mother and aunt, an abused half brother and female cousin, and most dauntingly, a brutal, grifter father named George Earl. Together they settled—and just barely survived—in a cheap boardinghouse in the town of Kilgore. Aside from the narrator’s relatives, a fascinating cast of Kilgore locals moves in and out of the narrative frame, including a successful African-American bootlegger; a blind, reclusive Civil War veteran; and a kind widow who lost both of her sons in World War I. The story has a richly drawn setting, and there are some striking passages, including tense moments depicting George Earl’s violence. However, the text lays on the sentiment a bit thick; it’s filled with heavy-handed reminders that the Black family is the poorest of the poor, and at times, the younger characters feel more like vehicles for pity than fully drawn people. Making matters worse is the frequent, distracting use of nonstandard spelling to illustrate dialect (“Who’s goes out thar’?”), which rings false. Yocum is at his best when he references actual history; the key turning point in the novel is the early-20th-century Texas oil boom, and when it hits Kilgore, the novel picks up speed. Along the way, the narrative introduces readers to real-life historical figures, such as oilman Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner. Yocum also does a fine job of depicting how an influx of wealth into a community can bring disruption, chaos, and opportunity. The elderly narrator seizes that opportunity to accomplish his one goal of breaking “that descending chain of evil and its generational curse.”
A Southern historical epic with too much pathos.