Thursday, July 31, 2008

Time's Witness -- Michael Malone

The first real book I ever read was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and, just as with any other kind of first, everything that came after was inevitably compared to that glorious experience of reading about Tom and Becky and the caves and the treasure. I read Tom Sawyer over and over, and when I took Great American Writers in college and saw Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the reading list, I was thrilled -- another chance to read about the characters I'd come to know so well! And then I read it. And very quickly I realized that Huck Finn was no Tom Sawyer. In the years since, and now that Huck is planted firmly at the center of my own American Literature curriculum, I've come to appreciate the book for everything it offers -- but I can never quite embrace it in the way I feel I should because my heart had already been stolen by its less serious, more plucky predecessor.

My memory of this experience was at the forefront of my mind when I picked up Michael Malone's Time's Witness this summer, as I had read and loved Uncivil Seasons, an earlier novel of his featuring the same characters. Just as with Tom and Huck, where the latter played a minor role in the first novel and a starring one in the second, Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum were to trade places as protagonist and supporting cast member in this novel -- and I hadn't liked Cuddy so much the first time around. My fears multiplied when I saw the glowing reviews plastered on the back cover and the inside flap, declaring Malone to be a modern-day Mark Twain. And then when I started the novel, the similarities became too much to bear. "My name's Cuddy Mangum. I don't much like it. [...] A few years back, I was made police chief here in Hillston, North Carolina. If you ever read a story by Justin Savile, you know that, but chances are you've got too cute a notion of who I am," Cuddy begins on the opening page (Sourcebooks 2002 edition), sounding exactly like his hick literary ancestor from a century ago: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth" (Twain page 1, Harper and Brothers 1912 edition). Well! I gritted my teeth for a long journey into parody and mediocrity.

Luckily, I had completely misjudged Mr. Malone. Time's Witness is an incredible assortment of the stuff literary dreams are made of: a lovable curmudgeon for a narrator, a gripping courtroom drama, an ill-fated love story, a serious look at the legacy of racism in the South. It's as if John Grisham had written a thriller that actually had some significant message to leave with the audience -- a story both captivating and meaningful.

Whereas in Uncivil Seasons Cuddy had been portrayed mostly as a caricature of the country bumpkin, Time's Witness shows him to be both wise and worldly, working towards a Ph.D. and quoting from the likes of Shakespeare. He also has a real passion for his job and his hometown of Hillston: "Every little spot of civic earth left uncemented was wildly sending up gaudy red and orange tulips, whole pink hedges of azalea and rhododendron, buttery yellow walls of jessamine vines. I pulled off my tweed jacket, rolled up my shirt sleeves, took in a deep breath of North Carolina at its best, and started the first walk I'd taken downtown in a long time. I was back on the beat, you might say, checking out my city" (327). Cuddy goes on to describe his battle against the "old-style tour of duty" that had long been hampering the Hillston Police Department's ability to deter crime: "A lot of people didn't like me. A lot still don't. But not many of those still work at HPD" (328).

Cuddy's problems with the police force are the same problems Hillston faces as the town finds itself enmeshed in a bitter court case centering on the murder of a death row inmate's political activist brother. The town has too long been too anachronistic, carrying on the dusty old traditions of the slavery era and turning a blind eye to racial injustices all around them. The trial -- which begins as an attempt to overturn the conviction of George Hall, the inmate, but rapidly balloons to include the mystery of his brother's death -- comes at a crucial political time for Hillston, when one of its own is campaigning for governor; the case becomes both a lightning rod and a sword in Hillston's side as the city tries to define itself and what it believes in.

Some reviewers have called Time's Witness the To Kill a Mockingbird or All the King's Men of its day, and I'm not sure such lofty comparisons are entirely appropriate, but this novel does deal with human weaknesses, and triumphs, in the same captivating yet weighty manner as those great novels do. As Cuddy finally has a heart-to-heart with George Hall, he is carried back to memories of his father, a racist factory worker who may have been part of a gang who tortured George's own father: "[Daddy] said he'd take his belt to me if he ever caught me hanging around that coonloving kike Rosethorn again. I hit him in the face...The day I graduated from high school, Daddy and I had another fight because I wouldn't return those crates of books Isaac had sent me. I told him that Isaac Rosethorn was more of a man and more of a father to me than he would ever be. When he raised his hand, I grabbed his wrist and threw him against the table. I left before the fear in his eyes made me hit him again...I was still shaking as I yanked my graduation robe off its hanger. I said [to Mama], 'Just because you're poor doesn't mean you have to be an ignorant racist redneck!' I grabbed my valedictorian speech off my bureau top, and shook it at her. 'I'm poor!' 'No, Cuddy. You ain't cold and you ain't hungry, and you've gone on through school, and nobody ever said to you, you got to stop going. You got so much more than he did'" (356). The memory of this revelation is a lesson for Cuddy and for us; it raises uncomfortable questions about the responsibilities that come with privilege. When Cuddy confronts crooked cops, when he scoffs at traditions of both the upper class and the white trash of Hillston, when he speaks candidly with the man who carries out executions at the state penitentiary, we know that he stands as both an insider and an outsider -- not hobbled by a chip on his shoulder, but not in shiny armor on a white horse, either. And this makes the more serious side of the book more meaningful, too.

Tom Sawyer and Justin Savile are captivating, cunning, adventurous protagonists who lead us through stories of intrigue and excitement. Huck Finn and Cuddy Mangum aren't quite so charming, but their stories reach beyond the plot to something with more substance. And what Michael Malone does that Mark Twain could not is to be brave enough to see his new hero, flaws and all, through to the end of the story -- something that makes Time's Witness stand on its own two feet, rather than fall into Uncivil Seasons' shadow.

Final Verdict: ****

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