on Sep. 17, 2011 :
What would you do for a friend? Help him move? Bail him out of jail? Share a half gallon of butter pecan with her after a nasty breakup?
How about spend eternity in the fiery depths of hell?
Huckleberry Finn accepted that fate for his friend, Jim, the runaway slave in Mark Twain’s classic. And that fateful decision has the River’s End citizenry all astir in Robert Lamb’s latest novel, “A Majority of One,” another swipe at his former state of residence, Georgia. In this tale of a teacher’s crusade – if an atheist’s pursuit may be so characterized – to incorporate “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” into her curriculum, Mr. Lamb swings his gun barrel from the urban sleaze and police corruption of Georgia’s capital city to a sleepy little south Georgia backwater, where rampant, ungoverned ignorance has been case-hardened by decades of misguided piety and fundamentalist zeal. In the process, the big city of “Hotlanta,” site of Lamb’s previous novel, “Atlanta Blues,” actually comes off looking pretty good as the beacon of enlightenment to the state’s vast unwashed and uneducated masses.
Mr. Lamb’s book, officially a novel, is, practically speaking, a position paper. It’s a novel in the way Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” is a novel, a vehicle by which to deliver a polemic. Religion, in Mr. Lamb’s book, is for fools, and the greater the devotion, the greater the foolishness. Maxing out on both is the creepy Cornelia Jenkins, straight-laced prude and first-class nut job, who converts a spare bedroom into a chapel – “That was supposed to be my man cave,” we imagine her down-to-earth husband might have said – and who is so convinced she is possessed by the Devil that she visits a Catholic church and a root doctor. (It’s unclear which satanic act the Rev. Duane Humphries, the town’s Baptist kingpin and spiritual leader, would have considered more scandalous.)
Atlanta plays only a minor supporting role in this story, although Anne Brady, our heroine and former Atlantan, is the embodiment of the city: She’s smart, well-schooled, refined, progressive, and decidedly – although understatedly – nonreligious. It is not her intention to come across as a latter-day freedom rider, a pointy-headed busybody come to stir up trouble, but that is how most River’s Enders see her as she stands up to all challenges, both the menacing threats and the soft-boiled pleas.
But she does have a small pocket of support: her husband, Theron, a physics professor; the local newspaper editor, Ben Blake; and, of course, her attorney, the redoubtable Gene Shapiro. In their high-minded conversations, they plumb the depths of the human condition, drop names, recite poetry, analyze each other’s religious persuasions, and collectively sigh in learned dismay at the poor wretches they must suffer daily in this intellectual hellhole. Teaching is “tending a very small fire against the great darkness of ignorance,” Anne breezily announces during one of their boozy roundtable sessions. Her take on the nonsensical notion of combining religious views in an educational setting: “You might as well refer them to an Ouija board or a fortune teller, or teach them voodoo.”
Thanks to the booze, these pontifications are more merry frolics than teeth-gnashing calls to arms, which helps to set Anne and her quixotic clutch apart from the Rev. Humphries and the war-whoopin’ locals.
The story spans a year, from Halloween to Halloween, although the absence of key time markers – no reference to computers, cell phones, popular TV shows or movies, current events – makes it hard to determine which year. With slight modifications, it could be 1970 or present day. Word has gotten out that Anne plans to teach “Huckleberry Finn,” and that has prompted a campaign of protest by, well, somebody. Or some group. Anne is perplexed by the sudden uprising, and the reader may be as well, given that she seems to have had no prior trouble with her book choices in the five years she and Theron have lived in River’s End. What’s more, there is no evidence of previous objections to “Huckleberry Finn” in particular. Why now? Is this the first time in the history of River’s End that the novel has been introduced to the school system? Because the letters and notes bear similar characteristics – they are uniformly unsigned and uniformly filled with the basest grammatical gaffes – we are given reason to believe one kook is doing all the dirty work and trying to make it look like a systematic effort. Yet we also suspect that River’s End is full of the kind of cowardly fools who would compose idiotic anonymous letters that would look, unsurprisingly, very similar to one another. Regardless of how it started or who was in on the first meeting, righteous indignation is soon ablaze in River’s End.
The objection to Twain’s book? Not race, even though the book’s 127-year history is pockmarked with protests of Twain’s use of dialect, seen by many as racially offensive. That component is all but ignored in monochromatic River’s End. (We get fleeting glimpses of three African-American women, hardly enough to sustain any sort of movement, and none of them, including a kowtowing housekeeper and a voodoo priestess, appears to be inclined toward civic action.) The cynic might even call the community’s conspicuous silence on race a de facto endorsement of the antebellum social structure in which “Huckleberry Finn” was set.
The objection to the book is based solely on religion. Or, rather, Twain’s treatment of it. And, come to think of it, that Mark Twain was an atheist anyway. And this teacher, Brady, anybody seen her in church lately? What does she believe? Great Caesar’s Ghost! This town is eat up with atheists!
And so the hysteria continues, with all manner of stock characters chiming in, Blake’s Clay County Chronicle office serving as the town square. One after another, like images on a slide show, head-shaking locals grab their newspaper, sound off on the sad state of affairs, then march back out into the comfort of conformity and like-mindedness.
As soon as Mr. Shapiro enters the scene, we know we have courtroom drama in store, and the book hits a confident stride in the back-and-forth between Shapiro and his counterpart, Ernest Rogers, the lawyer for the school district, along with a cross section of River’s End’s citizens. Shapiro – an Albert Brooks role, perhaps? – is a bibliophile, and has the complete Western canon on display in his dingy office when Anne first visits. The two share a gushy moment as she caresses the covers and lovingly calls out the authors’ names. Conveniently, he seems to have no other cases, or else he dropped everything when this chance of a lifetime materialized. Either way, Anne has his complete attention. Even better, he’s cheap; the dollar bill in Anne’s purse will suffice, he says.
What follows is a fairly routine second act, dominated by much legal eagling and courtroom dialogue. Anne, having been fired, sues to keep her job and her lesson plan, and Shapiro is in his element as the lead dog, sniffing out school council subterfuge at every turn. His bravado and arrogance test our patience, but he rewards us with his skills of oratory in the public arena.
Most River’s End folks don’t seem able to think things through. Stupidity may be partly to blame, and there is one oblique poke at the town’s lack of genetic diversity. But more to the point is their unwillingness to think, their reluctance to accept anything not set forth, promoted, or otherwise clearly attached to the pages of Scripture. We imagine generations of families receiving the same reproof from their well-meaning preachers, that salvation lay in the absolute and utter acceptance of God’s Word, that fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom and, frankly, fearing the Lord is all the wisdom you need, son. Is it so hard to see that the minds of this simple people have, over years and decades and generations, atrophied from neglect?
It is, therefore, tragic to see these guileless villagers unable to mine the treasure that is right at their feet, unable to see the value – religious value, even – in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Huck’s “audacious” and “damnable” decision to stand by his friend was, we see without equivocation, the right decision. It was right then. It is right now. One of Shapiro’s shining courtroom moments is his articulation of this. Even the Bible-toting populace of River’s End has more or less conceded that point, which is not the point at all, really. The point of it all is the impudence of this grimy, adolescent ragamuffin spitting in God’s face, seizing the mantle of righteousness from the Almighty. Doing the right thing is all well and good, but in the South, Thou Shalt Know One’s Place, and Huck Finn did not follow protocol. Had he humbled himself before the throne of God, confessed his sins, owned up to his unworthiness, and then asked for and received divine wisdom before he charged off on his own, winging it as a holy freelancer, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” might even be shelved near the “decent” works of C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan in the school library, not heaped up in the to-burn pile with Salinger, Lawrence, et al.
To really rock the world of River’s End, one might even go to the Garden of Gethsemene, where Christ prayed in the hours before his execution, and compare it with Huck’s moment of truth. Both were tormented by unbearable decisions. Both placed the salvation of others ahead of their respective fates. And both chose to make the ultimate act of altruism: surrendering their souls with absolutely no hope of a reward. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” was how the conscience-stricken Huck put it in that dramatic crossing-the-Rubicon scene in which, in his mind, he seals his doom. (The phrase appears throughout “A Majority of One,” such that it might have been an apt subtitle.) The profundity of Huck’s decision cannot be overstated. Heroic acts in life and literature routinely end in death, and the sacrifices are precious to us. Yet the hope of an afterlife – one without brimstone, that is – is balm to our grief, to say nothing of the basis for our belief systems and the foundation on which we order our lives. In his “far, far better thing that I do” speech in “A Tale of Two Cities,” Sydney Carton, bracing for an unjust execution, dreamily speaks of the “far, far better rest.” What Huck gives up for a runaway slave is everything on earth and anything beyond. Forever. There can be no greater sacrifice. In the mountain range of great literary moments, this one, conveyed to us in the backwoods vernacular of a dirty, barefooted, country castaway, is surely the Everest. Is it so outrageous to see in Twain’s novel a faint shadow of the Christian ideal of selflessness? Huck may be no Christ figure, but his decision, to separate himself from the promise of eternal life in heaven in order to “save” his friend, was it so different from the sacrifice made by our Lord and Savior? What, dare we ask, would Jesus have done?
Finally, Bible-believing River’s End surely could appreciate God’s assurance, articulated in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, that, even for Gentiles who have not yet heard the Good News, “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” This is God’s way of saying we all have access to him, we all have the username and password tucked away for that day when we need it. We are all hopeless sinners, yes, in need of daily sanctification and daily meditation on the Word. But even Huck, the illiterate ruffian, is able to channel the Bible in a time of crisis. We should not Christianize Mark Twain retroactively; the curses from the grave he might send forth should frighten us all. Yet his literary art is right there for Christians and non-Christians alike to enjoy, deconstruct, and otherwise use to improve the human condition. Why, fair citizens of River’s End, would you not?
(reviewed 22 days after purchase)