Stark, haunting third novel by Yarbrough (Visible Spirits, 2001, etc.) limns a Mississippi Delta community whose destiny is grimly shaped by the war thousands of miles away.
In the summer of 1943, Dan Timms drives a “rolling store” for his shady uncle Alvin, selling snacks and supplies to local farmers while waiting to turn 18 so he can enlist. His father recently committed suicide, perhaps because Dan’s mother was sleeping with Alvin, but more likely because the WWI veteran remained shattered by his combat experiences. Dan’s childhood buddy Marty Stark, sent home from Europe to guard German soldiers at a nearby POW camp, is even more obviously traumatized; he’s a time bomb waiting for the fuse to be lit. L.C., the18-year-old African-American who drives Alvin’s second rolling store, barely acts servile enough to satisfy the white folks and has no intention of donning a uniform to fight for his oppressors. No one’s under any illusions about what life in Mississippi is like for L.C.’s people. “If you were colored, would you die for this country?” Alvin asks the white head of the draft board. “Not unless somebody shot me,” the man replies, grinning. In Yarbrough’s vision, a brutal, unjust social order imprisons blacks and whites alike; among the many superbly complex characters is a desolate father, grieving for his son killed at the Kasserine Pass, who’s also a vicious racist. Dark though the story is, right down to its apocalyptic climax at the POW camp, the author’s unsentimental compassion and technical mastery make for an exhilarating read. Yarbrough cogently develops his themes within a compelling plot and a rich portrait of the small town of Loring, where everyone knows everyone, but no one is merely what they seem. War changes a man into another person, and the enemy is simply a guy on the wrong side. The only meaningful difference, the tortured Marty concludes, is between human beings who are alive and those who are dead.
Philosophically troubling, artistically thrilling, and thoroughly impressive.