Marly Youmans, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2012). 261 pages.
When Albert Camus published L’Étranger in 1942, he whipped up an extraordinary popular delusion among the literati, especially the Anglo-American literati. The existential outsider became the hero of postwar literature, and his alienation from a world in which he could find no meaning became the era’s great theme. One wag even suggested that postwar critics had a special key on their typewriters for the word alienation. Both Richard Wright and the twenty-four-year-old British prodigy Colin Wilson wrote books, published within three years of each other, called The Outsider. Here was a man, according to Wright, who “found his obligations intolerable,” not merely because of his position between two cultures—Wright’s outsider was African American, Camus’s a French North African—but because “there resided in his heart a sharp sense of freedom that had somehow escaped being dulled by intimidating conditions.” By the time his vogue had passed and the literati had moved on to eulogize the Other instead, the outsider had become a hippie.
In her fifth novel, Marly Youmans pumps new life into the old figure. Like Camus’s Meursault, Pip Tattnal is an orphan who lacks all relatedness, except perhaps to a world that is overwhelming, occasionally radiant, but forever unmoved by moral experience:
Pip concludes that the reason his brother was murdered may have been as simple as this: “Otto was just the same as the others until somebody noticed that maybe he wasn’t.” There is nothing for him, he realizes, at an orphanage named for a secret organization much like the Ku Klux Klan. In January, when he turns eleven, Pip jumps on the 2:15 Southern Railway local bound for Savannah. He longs for scenery beyond Georgia—mountains, canyons, oceans—but he does not know what to expect. “[A]ll his knowledge was a child’s,” Youmans writes, “a piecing together of a world based on insufficient information.” Thus begins what she frankly calls his picaresque.
Pip is not a rogue, however—not the traditional hero of a picaresque. He does not exhibit what I have described elsewhere as the reckless cunning, hopscotch logic, and narrow-eyed attitude toward life which typifies a rogue. Pip leaves the White Camellia Orphanage not because he is fleeing from, but because he is looking for. And though it is clear almost from the beginning what he is looking for (“He wished that he belonged to somebody”), it takes him three whole years, five inches of growth, and thousands of miles riding the rails to find where and to whom he belongs.
Youmans is particularly good at sketching in the background of the Depression years. Pip is tossed into the company of hobos and migrants—“floaters,” as he calls them—who are “roving North America with no place to lay their heads.” The work is scarce when there is any work at all, the pay is barely anything, kindness is rare, the hunger and loneliness are unrelenting, and violence is never far from the surface. Pip is beaten by railroad bulls, knifed by a man who covets his slice of cheese. Hopping freights is even more treacherous, and Pip witnesses his share of bloody death. There are also the sad cases, like the man known only as Mr. Can o’ Heat, who squeezes Sterno through a filthy handkerchief to stay drunk on its alcohol. The dead and discarded of those years, Pip says, were “lost grain[s] of history, sliding into the abyss.”
Pip is determined not to become one of them. Although he remains an outsider among outsiders (“this aimless tribe of young men, an unconnected troop who had banded together out of a fear of wandering in a world without bounds and with no end to danger”), Pip never abandons his hope of belonging to “people who had a meaning to one another. . . .” Then, one day in October 1941, riding a Missouri Pacific freight that is heading east, Pip is handed a worn railroad timetable by two brothers who share his boxcar. Hand-lettered on it are the words “Mrs. Lil Tattnal Tattnal. L. J. Tattnal Farm Road.” She is his older sister, whom he hardly remembers and then only as an image in a photograph. “That lady gave us the best feed we’ve had all year,” one brother says. “She was sure one nice lady,” the other agrees.
Holding the paper in his hand, teetering between going and not going, Pip realizes that he is tied to the place where the White Camellia Orphanage once stood: “he was entangled with that landscape as if the very clay of him had been scooped from the Georgia fields.” And so he returns, arriving in Emanuel County two days after Pearl Harbor. He intends only to take a meal and a bath before departing again, but Lil speaks the words that stop him: “You’ve gone and swapped your free nights and days for a home,” she says. “It’s not such a bad trade.” Going to sleep between clean sheets for the first time in years, Pip reflects that she may be right: