“The Evening Road” by Laird Hunt – “Ginning up a story to steal away my heart”

This is my review of The Evening Road by Laird Hunt.

This is an unusual take on the shocking theme of America’s last public lynching in 1930, immortalised in Billie Holliday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”. The author explores in turn the experiences of three women whose paths cross fleetingly on the evening of the atrocity. Forming a menacing background theme, the lynching is never explicitly portrayed, often seeming oddly secondary to the preoccupation with the personal lives of the two main characters Ottie and Calla. Both are feisty, damaged by dysfunctional childhoods yet on opposite sides of the racial divide.

Ottie is a sassy young secretary who indulges her lecherous boss to boost her pay cheque and has a troubled relationship with her husband, connected with events from her childhood which gradually become apparent. The trio’s whisky-sodden attempt to join the herd travelling to the misnamed town of “Marvel” for the lynching as a kind of casual spectator sport takes on the quality of a bizarre Odyssey. which seems at times like a nightmarish version of the Coen brothers’ “Oh brother where art thou”. Ottie suppresses her sense of unease over the lynching to the point of encouraging the hijack of a cornflowers’ cart to get there. This is the peculiar, incongruously sweet choice of a name for black Americans as opposed to “cornsilks” for whites, or “cornroots” for American Indians.

Orphaned as a child, taken in by a couple on sufferance, torn between her affection for two men, Calla channels some of her personal violent anger into defiant rage over the lynching to the point of taking action, however futile, to prevent people from attending it. One of the most convincing scenes is her perverse desire to “stamp into the ground”, even shoot, the one white person who shows her kindness. She is enraged by the inadequacy of his statement that the lynching is “just plain wrong”. For her, it is “a thousand miles from what needed saying….what a cornsilk needed to do was just keep his kindly mouth stapled shut”: the honest prejudice of his mother seems preferable. This section reaches the strongest conclusion in the novel.

By contrast, the viewpoint of Sallie, a brain-damaged local white woman with mystical powers provides a short, inconclusive postscript.

“The Evening Road” evokes the sense of 1930s inward-looking small town America where the superficial cosiness of catfish suppers at the church is warped by ordinary people’s unthinking acceptance of slavery’s racist legacy, of sexism and the drowning of guilty sorrows in whisky, a reaction against the unrealistically oppressive prohibition of hard liquor.

Despite its striking metaphors (hell-poker hot) and visual images , this novel comes across as an over-contrived exercise in creative writing. Deliberately surreal and evading the norms of structure, it appears too fragmented and rambling, with details only half-revealed at random, threads allowed to drift away, characters half-developed and unengaging, overall a kind of verbal “modern art”. I read on in the hopes of some resolution or revelation which never came and did not feel any insight gained in the process.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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