THE HARD TO CATCH MERCY by William Baldwin

THE HARD TO CATCH MERCY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Episodes from a southern boyhood: family intrigue, post-Civil War history, race, religion, and superstition are all part of the mix in Baldwin's meandering first novel. It's 1916. Our narrator, 14-year-old Willie T. Allson, lives in the tiny coastal town of Cedar Point, South Carolina, with his nonagenarian Grandpa, his parents, Maum Anna, the redoubtable black servant who has kept him alive, and his playmate Sammy, Anna's nephew. The Allsons live in the shadow of the war, when the Union Navy destroyed the family home and a valuable dowry disappeared. Meanwhile, Willie's placid childhood is enlivened by the arrival of his go-getting cousin, Uncle Jimmy, whose aggressive courtship of Amy Mercy, a poor white girl from the swamp, precipitates a tragedy. Both Uncle Jimmy and Willie love Amy dearly; she dies suddenly (accidental poisoning), and her fearsome brother, the Hard to Catch (he excels at retrieving lost animals), disrupts her funeral and rides off with her body. The Hard to Catch is a devil- figure against whom Willie's silver cross offers only partial protection; his death at Willie's hands ends the novel and marks Willie's passage into manhood. Yet the conflict between these two erupts only spasmodically, competing with other incidents--like the arrival of mysterious Aunt Lydia from Paris, who smokes, paints her fingernails, and believes ``the Negro in the South was much maligned'': food for thought for Willie, who has accepted Grandpa's poisonous fantasies of a Negro uprising ushering in a cannibal kingdom. As the outside world comes knocking, and Uncle Jimmy and Sammy enlist, so the gentleness of the opening is eclipsed by a succession of violent deaths. Baldwin seems to back into this darker material almost inadvertently, suggesting a lack of control. That's a pity, too, because overall Baldwin's debut has considerable charm, tall tales and all. (First printing of 20,000)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1993
ISBN: 1-56512-025-6
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1993




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