Reviewed by Amy Susan Wilson
In his novel Leaving Tuscaloosa, Walter Bennett creates a haunting fictional world steeped in a gripping story that raises questions regarding our moral obligations to human communities.
The novel is set in the Deep South of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1962. This is the year before Bull Connor turned his fire hoses on civil rights protesters in Birmingham and the Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Bennett’s novel paints a raw, violent, and realistic landscape of racial tensions that existed prior to the eruption of Connor’s fire hoses. Yet what draw the reader into this novel are not its historical implications, but rather, the character’s authentic voices and Bennett’s skillful weaving of plot and storytelling abilities. Simply put, Bennett is a master storyteller.
Leaving Tuscaloosa follows the journeys of two young men, one black, Acee Waites, one white, Richeboux Branscomb, through thirty-six hours of racial turmoil. Richeboux and Acee were once childhood friends but were forced to separate due to segregation. As young adults, they reunite in an explosive climax one fateful night.
For Richeboux Branscomb, the journey begins one sultry Alabama night on a dusty road in a rattle-trap Ford. A raw egg is thrown at a revered leader of the black community, Reverend Gryce. For Acee Waites, it begins with his brother, Raiford, charged with killing a police officer, and with a ruthless sheriff’s search for Raiford and, eventually, Acee himself.
Propelled along separate tracks through these thirty-six hours of racial turmoil, these estranged boyhood friends encounter tenderness and cruelty, erotic passion, and murderous rage.
In a pivotal chapter, Acee’s brother, Raiford, encounters the “cracker” sheriff’s deputies. Raiford, a young Black man, was rumored to “spend company” with a white woman from the East coast, and even more annoying to the sheriff, Raiford was an ardent activist who promoted Civil Rights among members of the Black community.
The night Raiford is apprehended by the sheriff’s deputies, Acee can only watch as his estranged childhood friend, Richeboux, dressed as Chief Tuskaloosa, walks to Cherrytown, the Black community of Tuscaloosa. With war paint smeared on his chest and face, Richeboux attempts to save Raiford’s life, but violence erupts. Acee is saved, in part, by Richeboux’s incredible act of self sacrifice.
The preface to the novel begins with a quote from Faulkner that resonates throughout the entire book: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Bennett is a skillful author who weaves into the novel the violence experienced by the Native American community that resulted when the Spaniards attempted to colonize, during the mid -1500s, the land that is now Alabama.
Ah, “History repeats itself,” we hear, echoed in this twentieth century tale of violence that breaks loose on the eve of the Martin Luther King era of Civil Rights. Yes, through the pages of this novel, we hear the stories of violence in all communities, past, present, and future, violence that results when power is not shared equally.
If written by a less talented writer, the story of societal violence continuing into the present and future until the cultural paradigm shifts from a segregated, power-imbalanced society to a multicultural, all-are-equal society, would simply strike one as didactic and downright preachy. Yet, in Bennett’s capable hands, the message is one of haunting resonance. Upon reading the novel, this reviewer could not help but think of apartheid, and of the genocides that have occurred worldwide, and of what the future of all human societies holds if a paradigm of equanimity does not develop globally.
The novel is told in alternating voices by key characters and maintains a compelling narrative structure. The voices are intimate, as if your friends are conveying to you their inner struggles; the characters are that rich and raw in their honesty.
Take, for instance, Richeboux’s English teacher, Katherine Kukinski. She is a displaced woman from Poland, married to a U.S. military husband who spends weekends only in their duplex. Mrs. Kukinski, a Columbia University graduate and a Polish European, is an outsider in the white world of Tuscaloosa. She builds a meaningful world for herself by burrowing into her high school English teaching job, and into the worlds provided by the books—such as D.H. Lawrence novels—strewn throughout her home.
Sadly, Katherine comforts herself and creates some excitement in her otherwise lonely, dull world of displacement by seducing her high school student, Richeboux. Lonely characters who are just that—lonely—haunt this novel. Yet they are not pathetic. They are strong, interesting people who develop a way to stay sane among the personal and community dysfunction brought about by the template of segregation, which, the novel suggests, scars everyone.
Bennett tells an enthralling story about the Deep South that is not only about the politics of racial tension, but also, more broadly, about interpersonal human relations and the inner workings of complex communities.
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