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In the Fall ()


Westchester Women's Book Club

In the closing days of the Civil War, Norman Pelham, a Vermont soldier, is wounded in battle outside of Richmond and nursed by a runaway slave named Leah, who has just killed the master who was trying to rape her.  The two promptly fall in love and walk home to Pelham's farm, where Norman's rather forward black wife is a sufficient object of curiosity that the couple choose to lead a life of relative seclusion.  Years later, Leah, plagued by questions about what can have happened to the family she left behind, travels back down South, to North Carolina, by herself, and returns a changed woman,  morose, withdrawn, and unwilling to communicate with Norman.  After he confronts her about her behavior, Leah kills herself.

The second section of the book deals with their son, Jamie, who is fair-skinned enough that he can pass for white, unlike their two daughters.  He runs away from his depressing home and from the racist epithets of neighbors, while still a teenager, to seek a life of excitement in the city--well, in Barre, Vermont anyway.  There he promptly falls in love with Joey, a singer/whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, gets involved in the bootlegging business, commits an act of almost random violence, and eventually relocates to the resort area of New Hampshire's White Mountains, where he and Joey have two children.   Tragedy first strikes during the influenza epidemic, which claims the lives of Joey and their daughter.  Then the past catches up to Jamie too, and he is murdered by underworld rivals from his days in Barre.

This leaves only his son, Foster, who knows little of the Pelham history, and nothing of his own mixed race heritage, until he finds a sheaf of letters from his unknown Aunt Abigail.  This sets him off in search of answers about his family, which takes him from Vermont to North Carolina, where he meets his black ancestors, the unpleasant white man who was responsible for Leah's death, and a cousin with whom he immediately falls in love.  They proceed to light out for the territories.

You have to give Jeffrey Lent credit for several things here.  First, he has the unusual idea of approaching the issue of race in America from the perspective of Northern New England, one of the whitest sections of the country.  Second, the book is wildly ambitious.  The stories of the three generations of Pelham men summon,  in turn, Cold Mountain, The Great Gatsby, and Huckleberry Finn.    The miscegenation angle of the book is Faulknerian.  The world view is essentially Existential:

    The world is a great huge stone that don't care how many times you hurl yourself against it. It just
    sits there. You might's well sit back and laugh along aside it.

The narrative is unwaveringly serious, and the Pelhams and their women are presented as nearly iconic figures.  Even the title of the novel is intended to call to mind the Fall of Man.  The book's every page cries out to be treated as great literature.

On the other hand, the story is so contrived as to strain credulity--although the Norman and Leah section is apparently based on a real Vermont couple. Writers of fiction are to be forgiven the conceit that strangers fall instantly in love.  But surely once is enough for this hackneyed device.  When it happens to three successive generations of men from one family, we're entitled to object.  Moreover, given that the objects of their affection are in turn a slave, a hooker, and a cousin, it 's fair to ask whether this is love at all, or whether these men are not falling in love with types, rather than actual women.  These characters just don't seem to behave like normal human beings, and they certainly don't speak like regular people.  The whole thing has the stagy, overwrought feel of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, in which the reader is constantly aware of the deus ex machina.

Nor is it possible to feel much empathy for the characters.  Everyone is so morose the whole time, their lives so unleavened by joy or humor, that it's easy to accept that they exist only for the purpose of having horrible stuff happen to them.  This robs the various melodramatic moments of any pathos, turning them instead into merely the fitting consummations of wretched lives.  They all mope around so much, waiting for the ax to fall, you're pretty much happy for them when it does, and certainly happy to have them exit the storyline.

But perhaps the greatest flaw is Lent's rather fundamental misunderstanding of the story of Man's Fall.  The entire point of the Book of Genesis is that God has granted Man free will, despite the troubles it will cause.  Certainly it has been a curse at times, but it is also our greatest blessing.  It gives us the measure of freedom and control over our own lives and future that may one day enable us too to achieve godliness.  But Lent repeatedly suggests that our fates are inevitable and inescapable, that we have no control over our own futures because we are so tightly bound by the past :

    [He] did not want to be what he was. The same way Mother thought she could leave her old life
    behind clean he did the same.  But it does not work that way.

And judging from the events that befall three generations of Pelhams, he also believes that those fates, those futures, are typically unpleasant.  Obviously, no one can be certain that you can escape your past, but I do know this, inbreeding isn't likely to help you do so.

In the Fall was released to much hoopla and has won wide critical acclaim, so some folks must be enjoying it, or, at the very least, identifying with Jeffrey Lent's dour pessimism.  I just found it depressingly antihuman.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (D)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of In the Fall
    -INTERVIEW : A Conversation with Jeffrey Lent (Davis Kidd Booksellers)
    -INTERVIEW : A conversation with Jeffrey Lent (Joseph Beth)
    -PROFILE : Fragment of history inspires a blockbuster first novel for Lent (Wilson Ring, AP)
    -PROFILE : 'In the Fall' puts first-time novelist on book club's list (Heather Lee Schroeder, Capital Times)
    -ARTICLE : Author To Sign Copies of Novel : That Is Set on Randolph Farm (M. D. Drysdale, The Herald of Randolph VT)
    -READERS GUIDE : In the Fall (Random House)
    -REVIEW : of  In the Fall By Jeffrey Lent (Tony Earley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall by Jeffery Lent (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of In The Fall by Jeffrey Lent (Erin McGraw, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (James Lough, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : Lifting the Veil :  Jeffrey Lent's 'In the Fall' outpaces even Faulkner in its examination of race relations  (J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Simon Catterson, The Age AU)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Martin Hall, Spectator Online)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Anne Stephenson, Arizona Republic)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Anna Schapiro, The Observer uk)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Heather Lee Schroeder, Capital Times)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Charles Flowers, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Bob Yarborough, Madison County Journal)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Jonathan Shipley , Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of In the Fall (Patricia Ann Jones, Business-Know-How)

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY : Vermont American Pastoral : The Green Mountain State may well have more writers per capita than any other state in the union. (Paula Routly, Book)
    -ESSAY : Mixing the colors of love : As the number of interracial relationships has increased over the years, so has their acceptance. But the understanding has been slow to follow.  (MARGO HAMMOND, St. Petersburg Times, May 14, 2000)

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