by Norton Girault
The double plot can be employed in a variety of ways. In English Pastoral Poetry, the critic William Empson used King Lear as an example of how the double plot works: “…a situation is repeated for quite different characters, and this puts the main interest in the situation not the characters. Thus the effect of having two old men with ungrateful children, of different sorts, is to make us generalize the theme of Lear and feel that whole classes of children have become unfaithful, all nature is breaking up, as in the storm. The situation is made something valuable in itself, perhaps for reasons hardly realized; it can work on you like a myth.”
The purpose of this essay is to discuss the unique ways the double plot functions in two of the twelve stories in Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. The collection, nominated for the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award, vividly creates the experience of living in Tims Creek, a fictional community of 25,000 in a wooded, agricultural area of eastern North Carolina. All stories in the collection don’t use double plots: those that do display very interesting craftsmanship.
The first story, “Clarence and the Dead,” begins this way:
On the day Clarence Pickett died, Wilma Jones’s hog Francis stopped talking. Now of course no one else had ever heard the swine utter word the first, but Wilma swore up and down that the creature had first said to her “Jesus wept” on a sunny day in June. But the peculiar thing was that Wilma had not known of Clarence’s death when she declared the hog’s final hushing up; and oddly enough it was on the exact day of Clarence’s birth, five years before, that Wilma had commenced preaching that the hog could talk.
In this first paragraph it comes to the reader, perhaps subliminally, that two plots are in the making. What engages a reader initially, in addition to the earthy vitality of the voice, is the suspense over what connection there is between Wilma and her hog and five-year-old Clarence Pickett, whose birth and death seem to the narrator mysteriously synchronized with the commencement and cessation of the hog’s talking.
During the story, the narrator switches back and forth between the Wilma-hog plot and the Clarence plot in the manner of non sequiturjump cuts in movies. In the second paragraph, the narrator is off and running with the Clarence plot:
They say that day the sun shone while the rain poured–the old folk say that’s when the devil beats his wife–the day Estelle Pickett died giving birth to Clarence. Her mama was out in the cucumber patch when Estelle went into labor and we came to get her–Miss Eunice, not being an excitable woman, asked if the midwife had been sent for and when we said yeah, she insisted on topping off her bushel before heading home. Estelle’s papa, Mr. George Edward, was away in Wilmington that day looking for a new tractor since he was sick and tired of his old Farmall breaking down every other row and needing more oil than gasoline.
The narrator continues with a rather gory description of the birth, the circumstances of which add up to a sort of mock-heroic version of myths in which the births of humans endowed with superhuman traits are attended by “unnatural” happenings. There’s the “unnatural” occurrence of sunshine during rain, the very violent death of Clarence’s mother, the fact, as we learn later, that Clarence’s body, except for his face, is covered with a caul, and the rumor that Clarence did not have a belly button. The narrator is careful to report the townspeople’s skepticism, which includes his own. “Folk who said he didn’t have a belly button just don’t know what they’re talking about, cause we saw it knotted.”
Then, in one of those jump cuts, the narrator shifts abruptly to the Wilma-hog plot:
That summer turned out to be a mild one– only a few days over a hundred. And ever since that day back in June folk had been wondering if we should take it upon ourselves to have Wilma committed and her talking hog butchered proper, seeing as she didn’t have any children to see after her. But we left her alone, saying that all that meanness she had had all her life and all that insurance money she’d collected from two husbands and all that land they left her had come back to visit her in the form of a hallucination about a talking hog which she’d collar folk to come hear, only to be met by an occasional grunt or squeal, them scratching their noggins and casting sideways glances at Wilma, feeling a little sorry for her but not daring to say a word since she may well have kicked them out of their houses or called in mortgages they owed her. So when she took the damn thing into her house, making a canopy bed with frills and ruffles, feeding it topshelf Purina Hog Chow, along with Spanish omelettes and tuna casserole (she forbore to give it pork cause that would be cannibalism, of course), we didn’t say a thing other than, “Oh that’s nice, Wilma,” and rolled our eyes.
In the narrator’s report of the folk’s attitude toward Wilma, we see a characteristic of the community that figures significantly in Kenan’s stories: the conflict between the supportive function the community affords its members (What must we do about this hallucinating woman who has no children to look after her?) and its transparent hypocritical self-interest (But we better not risk losing the material things for which we depend on Wilma.).
Then, in an abrupt shift back to the Clarence plot, we take a leap in time to three years later:
Nothing much happened to point out that Clarence was different, not until that summer three years later when he began to talk, the day Ed Phelps found him out in his cow pasture surrounded by buzzards and talking in complete sentences.
What makes these jump cuts between plots work is Kenan’s masterful characterization of the narrator. This is exactly the way the narrator would recall this fabulous story that he’s lived through. He’s a nameless observer who is not directly involved, in either of the plots, but is trying to make sense of the many amazing, outrageous things that come at him and other Tim Creekers during the experiences he’s trying to reconstruct. His constant use of phrases like “they say” and “we” develops a sort of Greek chorus effect; he becomes the voice of Tims Creek, giving us indirectly the community’s values and beliefs. His vocabulary, a mixture of down-home North Carolina African-American expressions and somewhat elevated formal English, implies that he is probably more educated and perceptive than the average Tims Creeker. His inconsistencies in attitude show that he’s trying hard to process the mysterious happenings that have worked on him “like a myth.” In subsequent paragraphs, there’s the suggestion of a certain underlying wariness in the way in which he proceeds, as if he might be a mite fearful that what he’s sometimes debunking might be real.
Returning now to Clarence among the buzzards: Ed Phelps, the Tim Creeker who found him, in Phelps’s words, “playing” with the buzzards, returns him to his grandparents, Eunice and George Edward Pickett, who have taken the boy in after the death of his mother. Phelps tells them he had to shoot one to get them to go away. Clarence asks his grandmother “with all the innocence and seriousness you’re apt to see on the face of a three-year-old:” “Why’d he kill it, Miss Eunice?” Miss Eunice doesn’t answer him because “of course,” the narrator says, “she didn’t know how to answer him.” Clarence’s comfort with animism (the implication that he knows the buzzards have souls) is unnatural to Eunice and the other folk of Tims Creek because they’ve lost touch with his kind of at-oneness with nature. This scene involving animism is paralleled later in an episode in the Wilma-hog plot. The conflict between the spirit-world and the everyday world of Tims Creek is tied in with the importance of religion in the community. In this story, a staunch adherence to evangelical Baptist values stands in contrast to the constant presence in the stories of the African religious concept of animism. We see this in scenes in which Clarence appears to the inhabitants of Tims Creek to have an “unnatural” relationship with the animal world, as when he is “playing” with the buzzards and as, after his burial, deer and birds congregate around his grave.
At age four, Clarence begins reporting conversations he’s had with Tims Creek’s dead. What the dead tell him sometimes causes turmoil among the townspeople, and sometimes averts disasters that might befall them. The community evinces mixed feelings toward Clarence. Some go to him for prophesies; others stay well clear of him.
Right in the middle of a long section describing Clarence’s clairvoyance, and with no transition, there’s this switch to the other plot, as if, in the narrator’s excitement of trying to recapture the totality of the crazy things that happened in Tims Creek, his narration comes out in random rushes.
Wilma soon started throwing parties for the Holy Hog Francis (as she’d taken to calling him in mixed company “My Holy Hog”). She’d invite all the little children (except Clarence ) and they had ice cream and cake and orange and grape and strawberry soda and little hats, and Francis sat at the head of the table with a hat on, making a mess of his German chocolate cake, and the parties were a great success, and one boy, Perry Mitchell, came away and somebody asked if he heard the pig talk, and everybody was amazed cause he said yes, kind of offhanded-like and unimpressed, and they asked what did the pig say, and the boy said: “Oink, oink.”
It’s interesting that Wilma doesn’t invite Clarence to the parties. Does this mean that she’s afraid of him, or that there’s some kind of competition going on between Clarence and the hog?
Then a leap back to the Clarence plot:
When Clarence was four and a half, folk started seeing things. Ben Stokes was driving down the road and saw a white shepherd come up to Clarence in Miss Eunice and Mr. George Edward’s yard–and he said he didn’t think much of it at first but he backed up and looked again and he said he could swear it was Rickie Jones’s old dog Sweetpea that got hit by a truck a year back, and he said the dog had the same old red collar on. Ab Batts said he drove by one day and saw Clarence sitting up in a walnut tree with crows all on the limbs like black fruit, caw-cawing to beat the band.
Featuring as it does Clarence’s unique relationship with animals and birds, both alive and come-back-from-the-dead, this interlude continues the animism motif. Strange things continue to happen, like people finding Clarence holding a flush at a poker table on which there are several hands dealt out but no one sitting at the other places at the table. Were the other players ghosts? The mystery is never solved.
Right after the ghostly poker game, we get an outburst from the narrator, more a transition than a jump cut, and go back to the Wilma-hog plot:
But it was around that time Wilma decided Francis needed to attend regular church services, and argued down the Reverend Barden that the hog should attend First Baptist. That’s when all hell –or whatever you’ve a mind to call it–really broke out.
When taken along with an earlier indication that Wilma held Tims Creekers under her thumb because of their fear (“she may well have kicked them out of their houses or called in mortgages they owed her”), her being able to “argue down” the preacher into making such an outrageous concession to her implies that her clout in the community is very substantial. At this point in the story, this development seems perfectly consistent when taken as part of the rich gumbo of mystical, folklore, theater-of-the-absurd, realistic and probably indefinable ingredients being served up for readers to savor. The narrator’s “…all hell–or whatever you’ve a mind to call it– really broke loose” implies that he’s overwhelmed by the memory of it. Wilma’s blatant insistence that her hog must be accepted as a conforming human being is ironic when contrasted with the subtle emphasis in the Clarence plot on animism.
The hell breaking loose that the narrator referred to involves an episode in which the animism motif is brought to the fore again. It starts with Clarence frantically warning George Edward Pickett not to go out and plow because a former Tims Creeker named Fitzhugh Oxendine “says he’s gone get you, Granddaddy. He says you’s a dead man.” Oxendine is a Tims Creeker serving time in prison, who swore he’d come back and get even with Pickett for telling the law where to find him when he was on the lam for assault. Pickett is disturbed by the boy’s warning. Clarence had never met Oxendine, never heard of the bad blood between him and Pickett. Pickett goes out and plows anyway. His tractor mysteriously rears up like a horse and throws him into the cultivator it was pulling. Out of nowhere comes Wilma with her hog to rescue Pickett, who is being dragged by an arm caught in the cultivator. Wilma pulls him free, with his hand badly cut. Meanwhile, in the field Pickett was plowing, Francis the hog is “caterwauling and squealing and rolling about and biting in the dirt like it was fighting with something or somebody.” The narrator reports that the townspeople “found out a few weeks later that the day before all this happened Fitzhugh Oxendine had died in Central Prison.”
Here is how Pickett reported his reaction to the hog’s behavior to the narrator:
Mr. George Edward said this brought to his mind the scene from the Good Book when our Lord cast the demon from the man and sent it into the swine. Soon the dust was so thick you couldn’t see the hog, only hear it; and after a while the thing came trotting out with a look like contentment about its face.
Here we have Pickett trying to find an explanation for what he’s witnessed. The example from the Bible seems inapplicable. Wasn’t Francis wrestling with the demon spirit of dead Oxendine that caused the tractor accident? Is this a case of it-takes-a-demon-to-fight-a-demon? Wilma tells Pickett to rest easy, saying, “Francis took care of everything.”
Mr. George Edward said he passed out then with the hog staring at him with them beady eyes, its great big head stuck over the front seat staring at him, its frothy slobber drooling on his overalls. When he come to he found Miss Eunice [his wife] humming “At the Cross” and saw that them know-nothing doctors had left him with a stump instead of a left hand. But all he could think about was them gray eyes. “Eunice, that hog got eyes like a human person’s.”
“Go back to sleep, George Edward. All hogs do.”
Pickett has seen something in the hog’s eyes that haunts him. Their look gives him a glimpse of animism, and it scares him. But, just as in the buzzard incident, unflappable Eunice can dismiss his statement as referring to an everyday thing because she doesn’t see in Francis’s eyes what Pickett has.
The rest of Tims Creekers are shaken by the whole thing, but try to rationalize it away:
Well after that episode if you think folk avoided Miss Eunice and Mr. George Edward and their grandson before, you should have seen how they stayed away now. From Wilma too, for that matter. And her sacred hog. When she told them the pig had told her Fitzhugh Oxendine was after Mr. George Edward and up to evil business, people whispered a little louder about calling the folks at Dorethea Dix [famous in the 1930‘s and ‘40s for her advice-to-the-lovelorn column.] But after all, she did save Mr. George Edward from his tractor. How did she know? Probably happened by, we said. Paying no mind to the fact that you didn’t just “happen by” a field a mile off a secondary road.
Both in the earlier buzzard scene and in this tractor scene the degree to which most Tims Creekers have distanced themselves from an intimate relationship with the natural world is dramatized.
Here’s what the skeptical narrator says concerning Clarence’s talking with the dead:
Of course we all hear and all have heard tell about children born with a sixth sense or clairvoyance or ESP or some such, out of the mouths of babes and all that, but, we being good, commonsensical, level-headed, churchgoing folk, we didn’t have no truck with such nonsense and third-hand tales. But the evidence kept accumulating and accumulating till you’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid to whistle, nod your head, and turn away. But that’s exactly what most of us did anyhow. Ain’t it strange how people behave?
Strange indeed. By his question, we see that the narrator, although he aligns himself with the majority of Tims Creekers, is wavering in his rethinking of the majority opinion. He reports that one preacher at a revival called for Clarence to be burned at the stake, or left on a dry riverbed “for the devil to claim as his own.” Other Tims Creekers put dead chickens and blood on the doorpost of the Pickett place. But something makes them refrain from doing Clarence any harm. In this paragraph, the aside concerning the hog indicates that the narrator is still trying to correlate the two plots:
The summer before Clarence was about to begin school–Wilma had set out to start a church for Francis, seems the Deacon Board and the Board of Trustees at First Baptist finally put their foot down about cleaning up hog droppings after service–well, Clarence met Ellsworth Batts.
The Ellsworth Batts-Clarence relationship brings the story to a conclusion. The episode reads like a tragicomic tall tale. Ellsworth Batts is insane. The author has given us a clue to this in the comic-strip pun on his surname. The narrator reports the community’s conception of Ellsworth before Clarence met him:
Mildred had been his childhood sweetheart, a fresh cocoa-brown gal with the biggest, brightest eyes and the prettiest smile. Even before they were married Ellsworth was crazy [italics mine] with love for her, once almost beating a boy to death who he claimed looked too long at her.
Ellsworth and Mildred agree to get married after he gets out of the army. Here’s the narrator’s comment on their goal:
[They were]…dreaming of that little house and children and nice supper after a hard day’s work and all the foolishness young boys have in their heads that marriage is all about and ain’t.
Here the narrator voices a worldly-wise attitude toward romantic love reminiscent of Mercutio’s in Romeo and Juliet. Ellsworth and Mildred get married and get “a home so nice and pretty it’d make you sick.” Three months after their honeymoon, their house catches fire; Mildred is so horribly burned that her body can’t be shown at the funeral.
They say Ellsworth cried every day for a month and after that just seemed to give up…took to living in a broken-down bus shell one of his brothers bought for him at a junkyard…let his hair grow wild, his teeth go bad, his clothes get ragged and tattered…We just shrugged and accepted his crazy [italics mine] behavior as one of those things that happen. And the memory of why he’d come to live like he did just faded in our minds the way colors in a hand-me-down quilt wash out after time.
So the community dismisses Ellsworth as a hopeless crazy. But in his wonderful, down-home simile, the narrator seems to sense an element of callousness in that attitude.
Then, on a shopping trip with his grandmother, Clarence sees a wretched looking Ellsworth out on the street after “a hot morning of shoveling turkey manure,” and, as if guided by some sixth sense, he goes to him and tells him:
“Mildred. She says she wants you to return to the living folk. She says you have an eternity to be dead. You love too much. There’s more to life than love.”
“Mildred? Mildred. Mildred!”
Well, Miss Eunice said she grabbed Clarence by the hand and ran to the car cause Ellsworth put the fear of God in her and after she had thrown the groceries in the backseat and rolled the windows up and locked the door, Ellsworth kept calling: “Mildred, Mildred,” crying and pounding on the door. She said he had the look of a wild bear on his face with all his beard and hair.
Eunice drives away, leaving Ellsworth in the dust hollering Mildred’s name. Several things are noteworthy about this scene. Communicating through Clarence, Mildred is speaking with the authority of a seer. From the narrator’s description of her before her death, we get a picture of a lovesick romantic, but here she is voicing the cynical attitude toward romantic love of Juliet’s nurse (and of Mercutio and of the narrator). Her statement “You love too much” contains a warning to Ellsworth against his taking the tragic route by insisting on one value to the exclusion of all others. On the one hand, there’s the seriousness and wisdom of Mildred’s warning, the pathos of her being beyond Ellsworth’s reach, yet crying out in an attempt to save him from himself. On the other hand, there’s an element of comedy in Eunice’s reaction of rolling up the windows and locking the car door, very practical things in a world in which surreal things are taking place.
“Clarence had set off something deep in Ellsworth,” the narrator tells us. A clean-shaven Ellsworth begins showing up frequently at the Picketts’s place, where he sits on the porch and talks with Clarence, mostly about Mildred and her messages. The look on his face worries Clarence’s grandfather. “‘Tweren’t the sort of look a grown man shows to a five-year old boy.” The repeated visits begin to look “more and more like courting and sparking.” Here is what the narrator says at a point at which Ellsworth has done no more than talk with Clarence:
Nothing like talk of crimes against nature gets people all riled up and speculating and conjecturing and postulating the way they did when word got out about Ellsworth Batts’s “unnatural affection” for Clarence Pickett. The likelihood of him conversing with his dead Mildred through the boy paled next to the idea of him fermenting depraved intentions for young and tender boys. Imaginations sparked like lightening in a dry August wood, and folk took to shunning poor Ellsworth and keeping an extra eye on their womenfolk and children and locking doors after dark.
Note that the narrator says “poor Ellsworth.” Here he is separating himself from the views of other Tims Creekers. He is perceptive enough to grasp the inconsistency in their keeping an eye on the womenfolk and at the same time saying Ellsworth has “depraved intentions” for young boys. Furthermore, there’s been no evidence of Ellsworth’s interest in any other young boys, and all signs point to an interpretation that his interest in Clarence is not for his boyishness, but because he has become a surrogate for Mildred.
This is not to say that Ellsworth is not dangerous to the stability of Tims Creek. Clearly, his behavior (getting amorous with Clarence and, later, trying to abduct him) is something that cannot be tolerated in any community that values stability. Despite Mildred’s warning that “there’s more to life than love,” he insists on making love be just that — all of life. He pursues Clarence with all the abandon of a love-crazed Id run amok.
When Ellsworth embraces and kisses the boy, Pickett chases him off with his shotgun, but his marksmanship is impaired by his earlier loss of one hand, so he just wounds him in the foot. The scenes in which Ellsworth sneaks into the Pickett house twice, the second time trying to abduct the boy, have all the trappings of slapstick comedy: Pickett coming out of the bathroom trying to struggle into his Long Johns early in the morning of the attempted abduction, the image of the unflappable Eunice out in the hen house gathering eggs, and this dialogue between Ellsworth and Pickett:
“You can’t keep us apart. We were meant to be together.”
“You one crazy son of a bitch is what you is, Ellsworth Batts.”
Ellsworth’s statement is a parody of a line right out of the corniest of melodrama love stories. Also there’s the image of elderly Eunice tackling this young man as if it were all in a day’s work of gathering eggs and cucumbers. The detail of the eggs getting broken in the process adds to the comedy.
The posse gives chase with shotguns and bloodhounds; Ellsworth jumps off the bridge and is killed when the dry river bottom breaks his neck. The narrator’s comments on this development say a lot:
We were mostly relieved seeing what we considered a threat to our peace and loved ones done away with; a few of us–ones who dared put one iota of stock in believing in Clarence and his talking dead folk–figured it to be a kind of happy ending, seeing as Ellsworth would now be reunited with his beloved beyond the pale. But most of us thought such talk a load of horse hockey, reckoning if that was the answer why didn’t he just kill himself in the first place and leave us off from the trouble.
Some of us entertained fancies about the type of stories we begun hearing when Clarence got to school. But we never got to hear any such tales. Just before he was to start kindergarten, he took sick and died. Doctors say it was a bad case of flu on top of a weak heart we’d never heard tell of. We figured there was more to it than that, something our imaginations were too tired to draw up, something to do with living and dying that we, so wound up in harvesting corn, cleaning house, minding chickenpox, building houses, getting our hair done, getting our car fixed, getting good loving, fishing, drinking, sleeping, and minding other peoples’s business, really didn’t care or have time or space to know. Why mess in such matters?–matters we didn’t really believe in the first place, and of which the memory grows dimmer every time the sun sets.
…And life in Tims Creek went on as normal after he died: folks went on propagating, copulating, and castigating, folk loved, folk hated, folk debauched, got lonely and died. No one talks about Clarence, and God only knows what lies they’d tell if they did.
This brings the Ellsworth slapstick tragicomedy to resolution. It has conformed to the contours of tragedy: The tragic protagonist (Ellsworth) has an excess of a quality universally recognized as good (his love for another human being). But in him, it has grown to such tragic proportions that it has become something bad; the audience has been on his side (pity) but has gradually come to fear him (terror.) He’s brought down by his own actions (his tragic flaw). In his destruction, the community, purged of his presence, returns to “normal.” By purging the community of the threat posed by the tragic character, stability is restored. Life goes on, Eunice gathering cucumbers and eggs, George Edward plowing. But as has been indicated, this is not tragedy. It is hard to put a label to, but it can be said that it’s presented more on the order of slapstick tragicomedy.
This episode exposes Tims Creek’s homophobia for what it is. Ellsworth may be bats. On the loose, he’s dangerous. But is he homosexual? Is his obsessive desire to treat Clarence as he would a lover motivated by Clarence’s boyishness or by the fact that he’s a surrogate for Mildred? There’s no indication that Ellsworth has preyed on any other children. There’s no indication that he’s had sexual intercourse with Clarence, although his sneaking in under the covers with him on one occasion implies that he might have at least tried to. Clarence seems a willing surrogate, as indicated in the narrator’s report that Clarence “seemed about as indifferent to his grandparents’ commands as he was to Ellsworth’s advances.” To oversimplify: the narrator’s presentation humanizes Ellsworth; the community demonizes him. There’s no doubt that he has to be ejected from the community, but by what means?
Going back to the narrator’s long post mortem on Ellsworth: He gives us the majority view of good-riddance at news of Ellsworth’s death. But he cannot accept that that’s all there is to it. The mixed feelings reflected in his ill-concealed desire that Ellsworth might be happily reunited with Mildred, and his qualifying statement, “those of us who dared put one iota of stock in it,” is touchingly elegiac. The long sentence, cataloguing all the things in a Tims Creeker’s day-to-day life, builds up and up to convey near-disgust at having to return to monotony, and to be deprived of excitement after the deaths of Clarence and Ellsworth.
The other plot comes to closure like this:
As for Francis, oddly enough Wilma Jones stopped proclaiming the hog’s oracular powers and eventually butchered him. But at the last minute, with the poor thing roasting over a pit, Wilma had a crisis of conscience and couldn’t eat it; so she gave it a semi-Christian burial with a graveside choir and a minister and pallbearers, all made hungry by the scent of barbecue. Finally Wilma stopped raising hogs altogether. She opened a shoe store with her cousin Joceline in Crosstown
It’s interesting that the narrator makes no comment on the way the Wilma-Francis plot is resolved. Can this be attributed to the fact that he has become resigned to the way both plots end? Wilma’s last act bespeaks the same kind of reaction the narrator had to the loss of Clarence. Wilma succumbs to a day-to-day life that would be boring if she thought about it. Stability and sanity of a sort have been restored, but the magic has gone out of her life.
Whose story is “Clarence and the Dead?” If we go by the definition that it’s the story of the character to whom something life-changing happens, would it be the narrator? Isn’t it more accurate to say that something almost happens to him? I think the best answer to the question is to be found in critic Empson’s description of the effect of the double plot, that it “sets your judgment free because you need not identify yourself firmly with any of the characters…The situation is made something valuable in itself, perhaps for reasons hardly realized; it can work on you like a myth.” This story certainly does that.
What about the thematic parallel between the plots? Like all good stories with any complexity, this one deflects any attempt at a tidy statement of theme. But there are strong suggestions that the theme has a lot to do with the idea that attempts to impose on others by physical or psychological means any rigid definition of what is ”natural” and “unnatural” is dehumanizing. We do not ordinarily think it is “natural” for hogs to talk or for little boys to communicate with the dead, but through his mythopoeic artistry, Kenan creates a context in which, with a willing suspension of disbelief, readers may go along with Wilma’s claim and with Clarence’s clairvoyance, especially readers who take it in stride that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is visible and audible only to those whom he wants to see and hear him.
Another Kenan story, “The Foundations of the Earth,” exemplifies a more straightforward use of the double plot. It too is set in Tims Creek. Told from third person limited POV, it is beautifully structured using numbered sections. In Section I, there are five people sitting on seventy-year-old widow Maggie MacGowan Williams’ patio, drinking lemonade and looking out at the far field, where a man on a tractor is plowing.
…Maggie; the Right Reverend Hezekiah Barden, round and pompous as ever [an adulterer as we know from other stories in the collection and one who is after Maggie, who loathes him]; Henrietta Fuchee, the prim and priggish music teacher and president of the First Baptist Church Auxiliary Council [who we learn is after the Reverend]; Emma Lewis, Maggie’s sometimes housekeeper; and Gabriel, Mrs. Maggie Williams’s young, white, special guest…
It’s Sunday. It turns out in the group’s discussion that the farmer on the tractor is a white man to whom Maggie has leased some land. They get into an argument as to whether Miss Maggie’s soul is in jeopardy because she owns the land and lets the man plow it on Sunday. All the while, it’s obvious to Maggie that the others are dying to know the identity of her young white guest.
Section II and III are flashbacks in which we learn that he is the white lover of Edward, Maggie’s deceased grandson. Much to her sorrow, Maggie hadn’t heard from Edward for years. When he is killed in an automobile accident, Gabriel contacts her from Boston, brings the body to Tims Creek for burial, and stays with Maggie during that time. Maggie has very mixed, churned-up emotions about Gabriel. At first she is devastated to learn that her beloved grandson was not only gay, but that his partner all those years was a young man who is white. She struggles with her feelings about both grandson and Gabriel. She dreams she is Job, curses God for visiting this abomination on her and her grandson. God flings back at her the question: “Why are you whining? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” During the time she spends with Gabriel, she is surprised to find he’s a likable, polite young man; she even ventures into conversations with him about homosexuality, conversations that exacerbate her inner turmoil concerning this knowledge of her grandson’s being gay. But she is moved by the depth of Gabriel’s grief as evidence of his love for Edward.
In Section IV, we shift back to the scene on the patio with the five people watching the man on the tractor plowing on Sunday. The preacher and Henrietta step off the patio and head for the farmer to reprimand him and see that he stops working on the Sabbath. Emma tells Maggie she better go with them “to see that they don’t get into no fistfight.” So Maggie and Gabriel follow, Maggie saying, “Come on, Gabe. Looks like we have to go referee.”
Gabriel walked beside her, a broad smile on his face. Maggie thought of her grandson being attracted to this tall white man. She tried to see them together and couldn’t. At that moment she understood that she was being called on to realign her thinking about men and women, and men and men, and even women and women. Together…the way Adam and Eve were meant to be together.
It’s masterful strategy that in the next two sections, Kenan goes back to flashbacks that bear on the themes in the story, and in so doing keeps the reader in suspense as to what will happen when the five people get to the man on the tractor and confront him.
In Section VII, we shift back to the field and the impending confrontation. Maggie can see confusion in Morton the white farmer’s face:
Three blacks and a white man out in the fields to see him. Did his house burn down? Did his wife die? The president declare war on Russia?
A big, red-haired, red-faced man, his face had so many freckles he appeared splotched. He had a big chew of tobacco in his left jaw and he spat out the brown juice as he came up the edge of the row and put the clutch in neutral.
“How you all today, Miss Maggie?”
The preacher starts lecturing him and demanding that he stop plowing on the Lord’s Day. Morton replies:
I got two jobs, five head of children, and a sick wife, and the Lord don’t seem too worried about that. I spect I ain’t gone worry too much about plowing on His day none neither.
Then Morton turns to Maggie and says, “This is your land. If you don’t want me to plow it, I’ll give you back your lease and you can pay me my money and find somebody else to tend this here field.”
Everybody looked at Maggie. How does this look, she couldn’t help thinking, a black woman defending a white man against a black minister? Why the hell am I having to do this? she fumed. Childish, hypocritical idiots and fools. Time is just slipping away and all they have to do is fuss and bother about other folk’s business while their own houses are burning down. God save their souls. She wanted to yell this, to cuss them out and stomp away and leave them to their ignorance. But in the end, what good would it do?
She rules in favor of Morton, tells him to do what he has to do. “Just like the rest of us.” Morton resumes plowing. The Preacher starts to protest to Maggie, but she turns and walks away, thinking:
When, Lord. Oh when will we learn? Will we ever? Respect, she thought. Oh how complicated.
They followed Maggie, heading back to the house, Gabriel beside her, tall and silent, the afternoon sunrays romping in his black hair. How curious the world had become that she would be asking a white man to exonerate her in the eyes of her own grandson; how strange that at seventy, when she had all the laws and rules down pat, she would have to begin again, to learn. But all this stuff and bother would have to come later, for now she felt so tired, what with the weekend’s activities weighing on her three-score-and-ten-year-old bones and joints; and she wished it were sunset, and she alone on her patio, contemplating the roundness and flatness of the earth, and slipping softly and safely into sleep.
The double plots in this story are: 1) the preacher trying to force his religious ideas on Morton, and 2) Maggie trying to force her convictions about same-sex on her grandson’s situation. The convergence of the two plots–one involving repressive religious narrow-mindedness and the other narrow-minded conceptions of sexual behavior–has worked a powerful change in Maggie. She is faced with the realization that she must rethink everything she has believed in. For the reader, the story has shown how the disintegration of frozen thinking and beliefs can be the starting point for a fuller appreciation of what it means to be human.
Obviously, focusing on just one aspect of craft cannot yield the full experience that Kenan’s fiction has to offer. For that, one must forget craft and read the stories. I hope that this discussion has done some kind of justice to the question of how Kenan uses the double plot in two stories, and that it might encourage readers to enjoy all of his work, which offers not only great pleasure but also a treasure trove of insights into the brilliance of this author’s craft.
Also in this issue, an excerpt from Randall Kenan’s upcoming novel:
from There Is a Man Going Round Taking Names.
Born in New Orleans, LA, Norton Girault got his BA and MA in English at LSU. He served on cruisers and destroyers in World War II and the Korean War, and retired from the Navy in 1969, and taught English at Norfolk State University for fifteen years. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Sounding Review, The Crescent Review,MSS, Snake, Nation Review, Webster Review, Timbuktu, Old Dominion Review and other magazines.