Of Mercy and Mississippi

On the Bookshelf

The first novel by Houston writer Kathleen Cambor, The Book of Mercy (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22 hard), centers around the notion of change: the alchemy that individuals practice to better their lives. In alternating chapters, Edmund, an elderly father and retired firefighter, and Anne, his grown daughter who is a psychiatrist, narrate their past of loss, distance, and self-protection. Key to their struggle are the two absent characters -- Anne's brother Paul, a priest who writes from distant missions in Africa and El Salvador, and their mother, Fanny, a tango dancer whose mental illness drives her away from her young children. This family's story -- of how parents can just keep disappearing, of how siblings must fend for themselves, of how family members stoke the tenderest flame of connection -- is compelling and keeps the pages turning. However, the metaphors Cambor employs to deepen her themes often come across as labored as the instructions for turning base metal into gold.

The novel takes its title from the uncompleted magnum opus of a ninth-century Persian alchemist, one of the sources Edmund comes upon after retiring from his life as a firefighter and turning to the study of alchemy. Deserted by his wife, son, and daughter (who leaves her hometown of Pittsburgh to go to medical school in Houston), Edmund strives to use the lost secret powers of alchemy to mend these frayed family ties. Anne, too, discovers that though the lure of medicine and healing is strong, "...there'd been something missing for me in the focus on the physical; I wanted to know more about the secrets of the soul." Deciding to specialize in psychiatry, she "studied with a missionary's zeal." Her older brother Paul, who runs away from home to join the seminary, also struggles through his poignant letters home to embrace his priestly role among the starving children of Ethiopia and El Salvador's brutal civil war. Cambor entwines the language and practice of alchemy, psychiatry, and religion, three branches of formal study for the transformation of the self, through the later portion of the novel in a manner that is sometimes poetic but often distracting.

Suffering from a first novel's overabundance of themes and characters, some portions of the story seem unnecessary or overdeveloped, like Anne's medical school education and various love interests (especially an extended affair with a fellow student who becomes the father of her child), Edmund's undeveloped relationship with the palm reader who first introduces him to alchemy, and his "interviews" with a nursing home doctor as he recounts his side of the story. Even so, the poignancy of the final scenes, as the family reunites only to disintegrate and transform, is a triumph.

Cambor has been touted as the "last legacy" of Donald Barthelme, the late head of the writing program at the University of Houston, but this is an unjust comparison. Where Bartheleme created from the sparest sprinkling of words entire imagined universes with their own magical logic, Cambor works the well-trod ground of the family. In imagining a family's secrets and inner workings, its spin-offs (the firemen who live together as a sort of family, waiting for the next crisis), Cambor reworks the subject, not a small feat, transforming the familiar into something new. -- Robin Bradford

Do not pick up White Trash: Race and Class in America, edited by Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz (Routledge Press, $17.95 hard) for the latest poke in the ribs at cousin Cletus and his ill-mannered ilk, for you'll be sorely disappointed. You'll find no such cultural camp here: no redneck jokes, roadkill recipes, or hackneyed celebrations of trailer-park chic. The authors of White Trash are concerned with whiteness as a cultural construction, trash as an economic class, and contempt as a means of enforcing social boundaries.

Welcome to the burgeoning world of whiteness studies --one of the hippest new crops from the groves of academe. Responding to complaints from black theorists that whiteness was an unstudied, invisible norm -- a raceless race against which others were judged -- scores of scholars have undertaken the critical study of whiteness: What does it mean to be white in America? To which the editors of White Trash add, what does it mean to be poor and white in America?

This is no bucolic stroll around the honeysuckle patch: White Trash is filled with academic language -- a language of discourse and deconstruction, semiotics and superstructure, where "problematic" and "imaginary" are nouns, not adjectives, and the word "other" is always capitalized and preceded by "the." And the collected essayists -- 13 of them, from a variety of academic disciplines -- make some salient points about white identity, class resentment, and cultural representation. But White Trash ends up stumbling over its central image -- that of white trash -- by failing to offer a consistent definition of the term.

What is white trash? Do all poor whites qualify or is a finer distinction being made? The authors can't agree, and the coherence of White Trash suffers as a result. The confusion is indicative of the scattershot approach of the volume as a whole: Many of the essays are only nominally about the subject at hand, and those authors that do stick to the topic are so broad in their interpretation of the terms of debate that little in the way of constructive dialogue emerges. Add to this a few genuine lemons (Laura Kipnis and Jennifer Reeder's it-would-be-offensive-if-it-weren't-so-damned-silly "White Trash Girl," and Mike Hill's hyper-academic "Can Whiteness Speak?"), and White Trash borders on the tedious.

There are also some persuasive essays in White Trash: Constance Penley's "Crackers and Whackers" provides a delightful romp through pornographic grounds, Annalee Newitz offers a more serious look at white guilt and self-humiliation, and John Hartigan, Jr. contributes a thoughtful piece on name-calling and self-definition. But most of the essays are less compelling -- for all the academic firepower brought to bear on the subject, White Trash offers little that is startling, enticing, or particularly fresh, little in the way of revelation to anyone who has given the most basic scrutiny to the paradox of being poor and white in America.

Mississippi: An American Journey by Anthony Walton (Vintage Press, $13 paper) offers a different sort of meditation on race and class in America. Part travelogue, part history, and part family chronicle, this highly personal account details Walton's efforts to probe the many meanings of Mississippi.

Walton writes of Mississippi as a scar on the map of America, a place "almost unspeakably primal and vicious," a place with a long and bloody history that Walton, as a black man seeking to come to terms with the past, must explore. To this end he criss-crosses the state, alone and with his family, contemplating the local histories, from slavery and segregation to civil rights, exploring the lives of such prominent natives as Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert Johnson, and rebel hero Theodore Bilbo, hoping to find a measure of redemption among the great stores of misery that Mississippi has known.

But Mississippi offers Walton no such release. "Past epochs never vanish completely," he writes, quoting Octavio Paz, "and blood still drips from all their wounds." From Indianola to Jackson to Tunica, Walton finds a Mississippi of unrelenting poverty and racial divisiveness, a Mississippi still bloodied by its history. While he does find hope in those who survived, and even thrived, in such a "snakebitten" climate, Walton is deeply pessimistic about the chances for genuine racial healing in the state. "The past isn't dead," Walton writes, echoing William Faulkner. "It isn't even past yet." -- Jay Hardwig

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