A coming-of-age novel set in the rural South during the civil rights era.
Orphaned as a boy and raised by Aunt Ethel and Uncle Gordon in a small town outside of New Orleans, John W. Archer is small and serious and sees himself as different from everyone else. His best friend is the similarly disenfranchised Crawford Smith. Despite their mutual aloofness, they develop a firm friendship and become brothers “in every way that matters.” After a slow start to the novel—which in retrospect seems designed to sketch out the architecture of the boys’ friendship but is nevertheless, on first reading, a bit unfocused—the narrative zeroes in on Crawford’s complicated relationship with his uncle Hal Crawford and the complexities of both boys’ love interests. Hal is an outlier in their small town, living in “nigger town” and working as a civil rights lawyer during a time when segregation was the law and lynchings were not yet a thing of the past. Both boys are smart and honorable, and they see that the way things are is not the way they should be. Still, they struggle with whether their future is—like Hal’s—to stay and live and love within their imperfect world, striving in some way to improve it, or to escape, via college, to a more progressive world. The answers aren’t obvious, and in fact, the boys’ choices flip-flop as they struggle to be true to themselves and to live within the expectations handed down to them by teachers, girlfriends, parents, the formidable Aunt Ethel, and Hal, who, for all his talk about following one’s own path, is ultimately more interested in having others follow his path. Cheevers (The Able Seaman’s Mate, 2013, etc.) has a gift for dialogue, and much of the novel is composed of animated, often funny, back and forth between John, Crawford, and Hal. He’s less skilled with moments of action, focusing somewhat dispassionately, for instance, on the logistics of the novel’s climactic scene, to the extent that it reads like a series of stage directions: so-and-so raises his hand to strike, such-and-such dodges, so-and-so gets in between, such-and-such holds so-and-so back. Still, Cheever deals effectively with big ideas, and his characters are both authentic and sympathetic, investing the reader in the choices that they make and the ways they test and express their loyalties to each other and to the world around them.
Solid civil rights–era fiction; well worth a read.