Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Report: Go Set a Watchman

There's almost zero chance that Harper Lee wrote any of this, but that doesn't matter much because a lot of people don't think she wrote all that much of To Kill a Mockingbird either. What matters is that the ghostwriter is in spiritual sync with the rhythms and gentle eye for Southern-fried detail as was -- rumor has it --Truman Capote in the original.

The classic novel was a tenderhearted and intensely realized rumination on childhood set against the backdrop of a revisionist fable about the struggle of social justice against amid a ravenously racist society. The new book is pretty much the same thing, only with childhood replaced with quarterlife.

Tomboy Scout has grown into into budding New York artist Jean Louise, who retreats to Maycomb, Alabama for two weeks every year to slip back into the flipside of her double life, complete with her doting father, the legendary Atticus, and extremely patient beau, Hank. A condescending liberal amid a nest of down-home conservatives, Jean Louise plays the role of Ugly Yankee, mocking social customs and bristling at bitter prejudices that are rooted in the fabric of the Maycomb time warp.

The writing is breathless and beautiful throughout, conjuring much of the same magic of To Kill a Mockingbird. Nostalgia-dripping asides flash back to the To Kill a Mockingbird era and years that have since passed, in passages that could easily pass as lost chapters of the original.

When things get intense, and Jean Louise bares her claws to dig in to a pseudo white supremacist cell that has spring up in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, it becomes something more than the sum of its already strong parts. The writer decides to shift into psychosocial deconstructionist mode in the form of a pair of lectures delivered by Atticus and his eccentric brother. Never have I heard a more rational and convincing defense of ingrained Southern defiance to social change. The climactic metaphor argues that the North and South always complemented each other, in the manner of the aeronautical concept of lift and drag, conjuring a balance that leads to soaring American greatness.

Is it all a little too neat and convenient? Sure, but so was the original. I would not mind a third book in the series that catches up with Jean Louise in middle age.

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