Reviewed by Ryan Guth
I was watching an episode of The West Wing a few nights ago on Netflix. As a group of President Bartlet’s staffers walked into a blues club in DC, I suddenly found myself thinking that would have amused an acquaintance of mine … only I couldn’t quite recall his name. Then it came to me: I was thinking of “Red,” or “Tennessee Red” – given name Brandon Whitby, “a blues musician that just happens to be a white boy,” as he describes himself in James E. Cherry’s new novel, Edge of the Wind. Red is taking classes at a local community college in fictional Stovall, Tennessee, which is what puts him into the plot of the novel, but my point – and I do have one – is that this young man, while not a major character, is depicted so realistically that he stays in one’s mind as if he were. If the TV show I was watching had featured a baseball game, or a poetry reading, or a fishing trip, I don’t doubt that another of Cherry’s characters would have drifted up from my memory like somebody I’d just spoken with a day or so ago. Not the biggest deal, perhaps, but it points to something fine and important about Cherry’s book: his characters, the circumstances of each of their lives, and the texture of all those lives together in the small West Tennessee town where they live, are absolutely and effortlessly believable.
Of course, another tip-off about the quality of a tale is its ability to surprise. I didn’t mention that when we first meet Red, he and his classmates and their literature instructor, poet Megan Fly, are hostages being held at gun- and knife-point by a 25-year-old black man, Alex van der Pool, who is off his meds and hearing voices. And that isn’t even the biggest surprise. During the course of the hostage situation, Alex – who is only there because he knows that another professor used to teach a poetry writing course at that time in that room – is asked by Professor Fly to share some of the poems he brought. What ensues, strangely enough, is an honest-to-God poetry workshop: students are called upon to respond to each piece and offer criticism, just as if the author whose work is undergoing inspection weren’t a real and immediate threat to everyone in the room, including himself. Not that Cherry ever lets us, or them, forget that. Alex interrupts the conversation at several points, with varying degrees of defensiveness and outright hostility, but each time Professor Fly is able to nudge him back to the discussion. This long scene is balanced on a knife edge; the comments are a realistic mix of vacuous flattery, well-intentioned misreadings, and some genuinely insightful feedback, and we never know which way Alex is going to respond to any of it – or, for that matter, to the developing police response outside the classroom.
Some of the surprises are smaller, but no less crafty. Alex’s main counterweight as a character, sheriff Warren Johnsey, is introduced to us as “the ghost of Bull Connor, last of the good old boys.” In his hostage negotiations, however, he is so responsive to Alex as an individual, so attentive and observant that he reminds me more of the brilliantly controlled poetry professor than the cartoon southern sheriff I was expecting from that lead-in. My first thought was that Johnsey’s character had developed during the writing and Cherry simply forgot to revise an early-draft description, but when I went back and looked again I discovered the mistake was mine: that “Bull Connor” comparison was actually made by Johnsey’s bosses, the county commissioners who are trying to push him into retirement, and I allowed them to do my thinking for me. Wisely, Cherry lets Johnsey’s own actions speak deeper truths about him, and this white liberal reader got a needed reminder about the pervasiveness of stereotyping.
Which I suppose is the real point of this distressingly timely novel. If a white, southern, small-town sheriff can be a victim of uncritical thinking, how much more a homeless, violence-prone young black man with a weapon? James Cherry puts Alex front and center and refuses to allow us the relief of looking away, or of over-simplifying. Alex is bewilderingly complex and contradictory: he has read widely and lets his reading shape his mind in impressive ways, yet his own poetry remains abysmally incoherent, stillborn in ways he simply can’t see. He can smoothly chat up a young woman and get her interested in him despite full disclosure (more or less) of his medical circumstances, then an hour later fail to grasp the most basic classroom discussion etiquette. And yes, he hears voices – more specifically a voice: “Tobi,” a young black street tough from, of all the places Alex has never been, Chicago. Tobi is far more aware of his (their?) surroundings than Alex, and more street-smart as well. Tobi catches conversational subtext that Alex misses; he reminds Alex – as a potential active shooter – to watch doorways and stay away from open windows. Alex is even aware that Tobi is his creation, a means of accessing some of his own mental functioning, but finds this alter ego too useful to discard or to re-integrate. Their often Socratic dialogue clearly helps Alex think through his situation, his motives, and his rapidly shrinking pool of options. We need every bit of this information in order to keep up, and it’s still not enough: Alex remains just beyond the reach of our full understanding. But that very complexity keeps us engaged, keeps us struggling to comprehend, rather than labelling him and moving on. That, folks, is how you defeat a stereotype.
Edge of the Wind isn’t perfect, of course. James Cherry’s style can be a little clumsy in spots, and the plot dawdles a bit getting Alex from home (well, a spare room at his sister’s house) to the college campus where the main events occur. Sheriff Johnsey doesn’t talk or act like a man who lost his only child just a year earlier (an easy fix: put the death ten or twenty years into the past; Johnsey is old enough for the arithmetic to work). But those are minor defects. Edge of the Wind is a fast, suspenseful, believable ride. It entertains. More importantly, it has a thing or two to teach us.
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