Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Meursault goes home again

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:

In the lull after the memory departed, it came to him that this was all, that there was an utter randomness at the foundations of the world, and that only a few stray moments of beauty and intensity shone in a cold and ever-widening space. In its precincts could be found the murk of cruelty and evil and the cold boredom of pre-dawn mornings squatting in frozen scrub next to steel and sleepers. All he could hope for was enough stars to illumine a way.In September 1935, Pip is ten years old and living in a “cottage-style orphanage” on a sharecropped farm in Emanuel County, Georgia, when his two-years-younger half-brother Otto is murdered. “What could a boy do about such evil?” Pip asks himself. He is questioned by the authorities, he is permitted to visit the cemetery, but after four months he is given to understand that no one intends to do anything. Otto was the son of a white father, Pip’s father, and a black mother; therefore, he was a nigra or a nigger, depending upon who was speaking. He was “scorned for his skin.”

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:It came to him that he had seen many wonders in his travels, had gone north until he met the midnight flares of the aurora borealis, had waded through the high prairie grass until he knew it to be endless, and had crossed a western beach piled with agates and inset with pools of pink and green stars, but that now he had come to what might be home and this sight was the strangest of them all.Although Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison have both published novels called Home in the past four years, Youmans knows better than anyone that, for the peripatetic outsider, who feels as if he must keep moving, home is not without its costs. “The price,” Pip understands, “had been the death of his freedom, the halt to his long running away. . . .” But the loss of his freedom is not, for Youmans, the end of the story. When his freedom is taken away, Meursault opens his heart to la tendre indifférence du monde; Pip settles down to become an uncle to his sister’s boys—not, however, before he too opens his heart. Visiting the graveyard where his brother Otto is buried, Pip closes his eyes:For some moments he felt the simple aspiring of a flower for the sun: as if he had gone past everything he had known and even past himself until he was nothing human but some radiant other. In that instant everything he knew about himself from the beginning and everything he hoped to be was lost in one burning sphere of longing.Pip is delivered from existential despair—and the novel is delivered from sentimentality—by the grace of Youmans’s prose, in which tender poetry and jubilant lyricism are carefully separated from realities that are unyielding and often foul. The style affirms what the facts deny; or at least until the very end, when poetry and reality mesh at last. Where Meursault found only indifference in the world, Pip finds radiance, the immanence of glory which St. Paul called, in his letter to the Hebrews, apaugasma. (It is no accident that, in Christianity, home is identified with the Church.) One of the best novels of 2012, A Death at the White Camellia Orphange is a moving and powerful novel of the religious experience, the longing and the search for God’s presence in the world, without ever once speaking religion’s dirty name.


Dale said...

Oh, what a beautiful review! So exactly right. I think Youmans is arguing (or rather showing) that there's a home, and love, for us Mersaults as well, if we can learn to take it on. Not that it will ever be easy, or completely comfortable: but it doesn't have to end with pistol shots under the North African sun.

Anonymous said...

Yes!, especially to your closing paragraph. I love an author who can deliver and indicate beauty without sentimentality, and this novel was a big parcel of that. We endure a lot alongside Pip, which keeps the happy conclusion rich and real. —Margo Lanagan

Paul Digby said...

Sir, I wish you were a movie director!

Your review of Marly Youmans's newest novel varnishes the picture I have in my mind of it. If you were a director, I think you would direct a movie of 'A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage' with great fidelity. And I am sure the novel is worthy of such treatment. (It is my hope that this will happen one day).

I have read the novel twice. Your review of it has clarity, fidelity and insight and is, in itself, a very enjoyable thing to read.