By Charlie Smith
Brutal, cruel, inescapable repression and dehumanization would break most people in short order; which makes Charlie Smith’s black protagonist Delvin Walker something of an inspirational miracle. Given the heaps of indignities and physical tortures the Jim Crow South of the early 20th century dump on him, Delvin manages to survive with his dignity and hope, battered and beaten to the edge of extinction at times, intact at the end. As to whether or not he is able to fulfill his ambition, a propelling force deep within him, readers will have to decide for themselves (despite the opening from the tip of his pencil, which you might argue is a fragment from his many notebooks and not his realized book), as Smith finishes up Delvin’s often excruciating tale with a dash of ambiguity, a sort of test of your own hope for a man you’ve followed through the suburbs of hell (Ginny Gall; also Hell’s Hell) and gotten to like and admire for his humanity and resilience.
Smith imbues what is essentially a truth-based tale of horror, what Delvin terms at the get-go “a world of make-believe,” with a lyrical prose that emphasizes the terror, which adds depth to Delvin’s character, that leaves us wondering and marveling that anybody could survive such psychological and physical abuse. As a small child, Delvin plunges head first into the bifurcated world of the Jim Crow South, when he loses his mother, who kills a white man in anger, and flees the Red Row section of Chattanooga for her life. From a foundling home, he finds his way into the employ and care of Mr. Cornelius Oliver, proprietor of the Constitution Funeral Home. Mr. Oliver takes a liking to him and shares with Delvin many of the finer things of life, among the most important classic books and music. These and the pairs close relationship impart to Delvin, a naturally bright and inquisitive soul, an education, a way to appreciate even his restricted life, and a sustaining dream. His stay with Mr. Oliver also immerses him in the bitter, painful, and crippling meaning of race hatred, when he helps prepare a lynched boy, whose torture and the family’s grief Smith portrays graphically, and lives through the cruel and murderous disruption of the boy’s funeral.
Then Delvin comes near to experiencing a similar retribution, when he stumbles upon a group of white boys fighting. They turn on him. A black man turns up with a rifle and fires on them. Delvin, sure one is wounded or dead, flees for his life into the world beyond Red Row Chattanooga. He falls in with Professor Carmel, the curator of the traveling Negro Museum of the Americas, another revealing educational experience. Through the professor’s collection of photos and artifacts, not only does Delvin learn the breadth of black live, family, work, and the ever-present terror of white tyranny, but we readers also get schooled on a history that deserves to live on as a reminder of the past and explanation of the present.
Other adventures and prospective love ensue, until as a rider of the rails, Delvin plunges full tilt into the what Joseph Conrad so aptly called The Heart of Darkness, the very evil heart of violent racial repression. He and other black men he barely knows brawl on a boxcar with a gang of whites. Lurking in the shadows are a couple of white women, one a particularly brutal piece of work, the daughter of harsh abuse herself. She concocts a claim the black men raped her and her companion, a go-along to get-along kind of subaltern. The only fortunate thing for Delvin and the others is that they are not lynched on the spot or at any time during their various trials. Occupying nearly half the book, inspired by the Scottsboro Boys, Smith troops us through the trials and most rawly and painfully through Delvin’s extended torment in several prisons, most of which he manages to escape from several times, only to incur even greater wreath and punishment, until his final breakout and his reconciliation, often sad and touching, with his home, the people of his past, and his mother.
Charlie Smith, in this novel, provides readers with a front row seat on a shameful thread of American history, but more importantly, also insight into the resilience, the intelligence, and the poetry of a life lived within the bowels of hell. Can’t recommend it highly enough. w/c