“The Vain Conversation: A Novel”
Author: Anthony Grooms
Publisher: The University of South Carolina Press, Story River Books
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
Anthony Grooms' career got off to a most auspicious beginning. In 1995 his story collection "Trouble No More " won the Lillian Smith Award, given to a book that explores issues of race and social justice, and then his novel "Bombingham" (2001) also won that award. He has also published a volume of poetry and a children's book. Since 1994 Grooms has taught at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, with stints in Sweden and Ghana, and has been very active in the Georgia literary scene. Perhaps for these reasons, there has been no fiction since 2001.
Now we have a new novel, "The Vain Conversation," set mainly in Georgia in the late 1940s and based very loosely on an actual event.
The "conversation" of the title refers to the First Epistle of St. Peter who declares that tradition, like silver and gold, can be a "vain conversation" and will not redeem the soul. We must not in fact continue obstinately in the same ways. Change is crucial to salvation. In Grooms’ novel, changes of heart, changes of attitude are crucial, not in the religious sense, to earn a blissful afterlife, but to make life more humane right here.
The novel opens when ten-year-old Lonnie Henson, a white boy, accidentally witnesses a lynching, more accurately, a public mass murder. In a grotesque scene with a complicated backstory, two black men and two black women are kicked, spat on, beaten and, finally, shot, while a crowd of white men and women observe, celebrating. The women are "chatting and laughing,” the men drinking beer an entrepreneur had brought to sell at the event.
Lonnie knows the two black couples being murdered and knows them to be law-abiding, even admirable people.
Presiding at the lynching is Vernon Venable, a local planter and bigot, and Sheriff Cook, both stock characters in this sadly familiar drama.
But Grooms moves on from what has become almost a dramatic set piece to a savvy exploration of several psychological and cultural problems.
Bertrand Johnson, one of the victims, is a thoroughly good man—a black teacher who had served with distinction in North Africa and Italy in WWII and had crossed some racial lines to befriend Lonnie's father, Wayne, who suffered from PTSD, and then generously help Lonnie and his mother through some hard times.
Through Bertrand, Grooms takes up the disturbing issue of the treatment of returning black veterans. Not only did their service fail to advance their position in the Jim Crow South, as they had expected, it made that position worse as white men resented the blacks' patriotism and feared their confidence gained in battle.
The effects of the murders will be heavy on the families of the murdered, obviously, but in an unexpected move, Grooms explores the effects on other, essentially peripheral, figures.
Noland Jacks, a local farmer, was present and, even though he knew to his core the lynching was evil, did nothing to stop it. He is of Irish descent, has Cherokee blood and is without visceral racism. But Vernon Venable reminds him, scornfully, that as a white male he is not free to act as he feels. Southern culture demands that he squelch his decent instincts. Venable insists “you have to ACT like a white man. Play the role of a white man that has been given to us since time immemorial. I play my role ...Sheriff plays his role ... that's what people expect, Noland ...."
Even the villainous Venable claims that he is not, himself, as rotten as he appears. He too is trapped into role playing. “I play trash sometimes.... I want to do right...but I just can't...." "It's expected of me."
These affluent white men as victims of social norms will arouse little sympathy in the reader.
Not so with Lonnie. The reader is saddened by his life story: so affected by guilt over his helplessness at the lynching, he is forever damaged. He leaves Georgia, joins the U.S. Navy, lives in San Francisco, but is a fractured, unhappy person. His sense of worth, his sexuality, his essential self are bent forever.
In a racist society, Groom demonstrates, all, black and white, are victims of racism in different ways. None will be free, as the civil rights leaders proclaimed in the 60s, until all are free.
The suffering is certainly not evenly distributed, but there is enough suffering so that no one gets left out.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.