Sunday, April 17, 2005

I Got Somebody in Staunton, by William Henry Lewis was pushing this on me for months before the book was actually published, no doubt because its robots recognized part of my shipping address in the title. I gave in and ordered, largely out of curiosity, but I have been rewarded. (The cover, it should be noted, bears blurbs--on both front and back--by Edward P. Jones, whom I heard speak a couple of weeks ago at Washington & Lee University.)

There are several stories here that I liked very much, including "Urban Renewal," about a woman whose poor, black neighborhood is on the edge of a college campus, who persists in arranging a meeting with the college president and suggests, politely, but firmly, that campus space be used for a "program to remember [her son] . . . so folks can remember all those things that's changed for good," and the president doesn't recognize that he's being presented with a perfect opportunity to achieve the unity goals that he claims to espouse.

But the title story is probably my favorite, being from Staunton and all. That's about a black college professor who is driving through the heart of Virginia, on his way to visit his dying uncle in Staunton, who finds himself disrupted (if not quite intimidated) by the history of the area. It opens with a scene in a gas station and he sees four white boys: "All of them look tired. They have long, washed-out faces, like each of them has done time--maybe the overnight lockup more than once, father with a bottle, lover with a fist, working too many months on third shift, weeks of pork fat and cabbage, too many years stuck in nowhere with nobody to blame for it."

In the April 10, 2005 NYT Sunday Book Review, Lizzie Skurnick said: "Lewis's stories glide along in the present with methodical dips into the past; they're in no hurry to reach their conclusion. Rather than build, Lewis circles, and this ellipticism can be maddening. But there is a lot of heart and feeling here, and quite a few of Lewis's stories earn their keep in their last lines."

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