2021 Book of the Year: “The Committee” by Sterling Watson

The editors of Southern Literary Review will select one book each year to receive special recognition. The award recognizes books published between October of the previous year to October of the current year. 

Criteria

The Book of the Year should:

  • Be written by a Southern author or have a Southern setting.
  • Have lasting value as part of the Southern literary canon.
  • Exhibit artistic worth, literary quality, and originality.
  • Employ flawless language that suits the subject matter.
  • Engage the reader on each page.
  • Be a book deserving of wider recognition.
  • Be reviewed by Southern Literary Review during the designated months.

Now, here’s a republication  of the winning book’s review

2021 Book of the Year: “The Committee” by Sterling Watson

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

With eight books to his credit, Sterling Watson has long been a powerful author, but he raises the bar considerably in The Committee (Akashic Books 2020), a compelling historical novel about the havoc the so-called Johns Committee wreaked on the University of Florida in the late 1950s. With impeccable accuracy and a bold, brave forward motion in the story line, Watson conveys the damage done by the committee as it sought out “commies,” gays, even Native American mixed bloods, and liberals as it aimed to rid the campus of those it deemed undesirable.

Operating with the backing of Florida’s newly appointed governor and with police powers, the committee in Watson’s book (as in “real life”) roars through the campus, ruining lives for no good reason except for the power and self-righteousness behind its personnel. Coming to its authority in 1958 after McCarthyism had been finally been shut down, the novel asks how Florida could be so cruelly backwards. The novel is harrowing and illustrates the truth behind two of our culture’s common cliches: All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing, and those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Sterling Watson

There’s an everyman quality to the protagonist, Tom Stall, a man who professes to “love” his fellow human beings “in the way Whitman had loved the crowds in ‘Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry’.” When the story opens, Stall is the assistant chair of the English Graduate Department at the University of Florida. He is ambitious, coveting the chairmanship which will soon be vacated, but he is not ruthless in his goals. He loves and adores his wife Maureen and knows he is fortunate to have her as his partner. Yet he seems to prefer she stay home and be a ’50s housewife. He also loves and adores his twelve-year-old athletic daughter though he worries she is not “feminine” enough. Southern in his upbringing, he fits the climate and culture of Gainesville in the 1950s. A family man with a traditional Southern education, he considers himself to be a good, decent man. But that decency will soon be tested as members of the Johns Committee bear down, attempting to blackmail him into spying for them.

The novel opens with Stall hearing first an odd but ominous sound, followed by a scream. Rushing toward the sound, Stall sees a fellow professor, Jack Leaf, has fallen, been pushed, or jumped to his death from a window above. Students report seeing two men in suits leaving right before Leaf crashed to the ground. Stalls gently places his own jacket over the dead man’s bleeding head, then begins to question the gathering students about the incident. The men in suits are later identified as key members of the Johns Committee who targeted Leaf because he was “passing” as white by hiding his Native American blood—and for being gay. The department tries to quietly pass over what increasingly appears to be a suicide as a result of the committee’s harassment.

In short order, the Levy brothers—Martin is an English grad student and Stephen is the editor of the campus newspaper—begin to openly question and challenge the official, vague coverup attempts over Leaf’s death and the Johns Committee. They are aided by Sophie Green, a New Yorker and the only woman on the English graduate school faculty.

Things quickly spiral out of control both on the campus and in Stall’s life—small student riots included—as the committee blackmails Stall with tangible proof of an indiscretion in his own past. Whether Stalls can be pushed or blackmailed or whether he will rebel creates constant tension in the novel, even as other lives are being destroyed by the Johns Committee. His final act of courage could be fatal—both to him personally and to his career.

The Committee is a fine, deep character study of its protagonist Stall, which adds to the novel’s richness and suspense. Stall, a wounded veteran of WWII, thinks that while his “war had been brief, and all he knew of life so far, it had taught him. Keep your head down when you can. Be good to others, ask for the same in return, drink the wines of the countryside and eat the good food, and don’t overcomplicate simple things.”

But keeping his head down will prove impossible for Stall, just as conforming to the conservative culture’s view of women in the 1950s will prove impossible for Sophie Green. Referred to dismissively by one professor as “the girl,” Green appears befuddled by the campus culture but later challenges Stall by saying she is not so much confused as that she came to Florida to bring “change.” When she speaks up at a faculty meeting, the department chairman responds by telling her the matter is settled, and then by “waiting while heads bowed or eyes looked off into the middle distance where mortality crouched in all its ugliness. No one spoke.”

After yet another perceived misstep by outlier Green, the department chairman “looked at Sophie Green the way a man of his generation might look at a creature who bites heads off chickens in a backwoods carnival sideshow. Such a creature is clinically interesting, but beyond the pale of humanity.” The department chairman then sends Stall to quiet and control Green, who proves to be someone who will not be shut up.

In the view of some of the faculty, Green has three strikes against her—she is a female, she is Jewish, and she is a Yankee. But rising above all of that, the primary objections her department chairman has against her appears to be that she speaks her mind—both in meetings and in quotes in the campus newspaper. The outrage sparked by her questioning the coverup of Leaf’s death publicly is also directed at the Levy brothers, especially the one who edits the campus newspaper. Even when the university president orders the campus police to lock out the newspaper staff and calls it a “press holiday,” the Levy brothers and Green will not be so quickly discouraged.

Inevitably Green and Stall will conflict. Despite their early attempt to become friends, the relationship becomes increasingly adversarial despite the fact they both oppose the Johns Committee. In one academic debate, Green has the temerity to suggest the faculty must earn the “respect” of the students, while Stall takes a more traditional view—that students must earn the respect of the faculty.

In keeping with the maxim that a good hero deserves a strong villain, Watson offers up Cyrus Tate, a blond giant of a man, former football player and former police officer, who runs the Johns Committee on the campus. That he is vile and hypocritical is soon apparent, but the complexity of his personality and that of his cohorts on the committee develops in ominous layers throughout the story.

While Stall, Tate, and Green dominate the novel, Florida emerges as more than mere setting, though perhaps not as a fully developed character. Watson, who resides in the state and who had been a graduate student at University of Florida, writes knowingly:

Florida was America’s Vacation Land, and her beautiful beaches, the ring of white sand that enclosed her like a necklace of pearls, were cosmopolitan places where North and South mingled and even the races occasionally came within shouting distance of each other. But, oh, God go inland a few miles and Florida was Alabama and Mississippi with a vengeance.

Watson writes with a fine balance between the suspense of a page-turning thriller and the often-lyrical language of a literary novel. While the story is compelling enough to propel the reader through The Committee at a what-happens-next pace, the writing itself is so rewarding that readers might be tempted to pause and re-read certain passages. For example, Watson writes this about the impact of the Johns Committee on the campus in the fall:

An air of restraint, almost of paralysis, hung over the campus. A committee of men in Tallahassee had somehow managed to cast a pall over every part of life in the University City, as though a hissing gas, colorless, odorless, but spiritually and intellectually toxic, had permeated every syllable and thought and even the smallest of gestures which only a few months before had been nothing but the dance of a beautiful world.

When Watson was asked why he wrote the book, he answered “Because I had to.” He added, “What got inside me and had to come out was the anguish and pain I heard in the stories told by University of Florida colleagues who had suffered under the terrorism of the Committee. In the late 1960s [when he was in graduate school there] these wounds were still fresh. I wrote this book to bring light and air to the courage that some people showed fighting against state-sanctioned cruelty.”

Watson has written a fine, eloquent, powerful book and its message will remain timely. Let us heed its warning even as we savor the story so well told in its pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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