Last Things is the eighth novel by Madison Jones, professor emeritus at Auburn University. His is a distinguished body of work, and none of his novels is marked by the academic timidity or theoretical denseness one might expect from a professor of English or from a university writer-in-residence. One of Jones’s earlier works, A Cry of Absence (1971), is a masterful exploration of morality, and anyone who reads it will not be able to forget its unyielding protagonist, Hester Cameron Glenn. She is one of the most compelling characters in twentieth century American fiction, and it is not by chance that she is named “Hester.” A Cry of Absence tells a Faulknerian tale without the stylistic pyrotechnics and gothic trappings of much regional writing. Jones presents his narrative in a straightforward, rich prose; he is a storyteller who embellishes his tales with sparing but effective stylistic flourishes.
The narrator of Last Things, however, seems to be caught in the middle of an allegory difficult to describe in conventional language. His protagonist is essentially selfish, other characters sketchy and driven by artificial forces, and the action so sensational that Jones runs the risk of losing his reader back to the pulp fiction where he or she does not have to worry so much about “good writing.” The comic touches are heavy- handed, darkly ironical, and, occasionally, satirical to the point that they verge on caricature. Especially from the foibles of academics does Jones draw blood. Dr. Leonard T. Rathbone, a secondary character, is a marijuana-abusing Blake scholar who wages an esoteric polemic over two lines of “The Tyger.” This seemingly picayune quarrel with another Blake critic consumes Rathbone; he is an ivy-covered buffoon, his ivory tower clouded by smoke from his reefers.
Rathbone is the cause of the protagonist’s return to his home town. Wendell Corbin studies English literature at the nearby state university and, because he understands how to appeal to Rathbone’s vanity, is invited to rent a room in the house the professor shares with his slovenly “intellectual” mistress in Turnbull. Wendell decides that, because he is from the county and not the small town itself, he will accept the professor’s offer:
Wendell Corbin’s return to Bliss County, a place where he had sworn never again to set foot, was like something fated to be. Even at the time it seemed to him a little bit this way. Later, after the events of that summer, the truth of this was a kind of dark certainty in his mind. A fated thing, a mystery.
It is evil, pure but not simple, that awaits Corbin in Bliss County, an ironically named symbol for the unsettling moral apathy of this “New South” town.
Jones reveals early that his tale is an allegory with Wendell as a sort of Camus-like stranger whose emotional distance from his family and his home is not far enough to spare him pain. The moral vacuum which masquerades as his soul is equally ill- equipped to deal with the realities of malicious intent. Physical distance when he left home, the drug-induced distance he attempts from time to time, and the absence of moral values are all poor substitutes for good judgment and common sense. Wendell is not “good,” in the sense that he embodies any moral certainty. What happens to him is evil, but, up to a point, he participates in it willingly. His revulsion is short-lived, predicated on self- interest, and prompted less by conscience than by egoism. His plans for a life independent of his past go awry, and he is caught up in forces too powerful to ignore, too relentless to escape, too shrewd to outwit.
Even Wendell’s standing as a genuine antihero is suspect. He is too lethargic, too self-absorbed in the nonissue of himself for his ideas to become relevant to others. As the only achiever in a family of ne’er-do-wells, Wendell wants to put as much time and distance as possible between himself, his father Hap, and his brothers, Majer, Miner, and Fawbus. Too detached to become really engaged, he is diverted by the study of literature and aspires to share his own wry observations of man’s nature in a “blistering comic novel” peopled by “clowns, fools, self-deceivers, serviceable knaves,” and others of that ilk.
So remote is Wendell from his redneck roots, so secret and shameful to him is his past, that he apes his more polished classmates and “passes” as a middle-class collegian. He believes himself invulnerable, opaque to the scrutiny of others, ultimately alone but protected by an aura of mystery. “Together with a conviction of mental superiority that his performance as a student confirmed in him, it fed the germ of disdain or contempt for everybody around him.” He chooses English literature from “his determination to define himself with as wide a margin as possible between him and the rest, including especially the sorry lot of folks he had derived...
(The entire section is 2015 words.)