(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“The Cabal” and the five other stories in this volume represent Ellen Gilchrist’s newest portrayal of the lively, idiosyncratic characters who inhabit her vision of the New South. Like the characters of Gilchrist’s previous sixteen volumes of fiction, these share charming voices and strong senses of their own identities as they face the crises that change imposes on everyone, a major theme of this collection. The collection also includes a story in the voice of a Gilchrist favorite, Traceleen Brown, who relates the current doings of Crystal Mallison’s family, to which she is both wise servant and friend. Here, too, change is the keynote.

The opening novella, The Cabal, introduces its readers to a new set of Gilchrist characters—Caroline Jones, Augustus Hailey, and others who form the fictional faculty of (nonfictional) Millsaps College and the “cabal” of theater people in Jackson, Mississippi. The plot deals with subjects of perennial interest to Gilchrist and her readers, subjects that have always been the mainstay of literature—love, money, power, and art.

Caroline Jones has been hired as writer-in-residence at Millsaps to fill in for a poet who has just died. Her name was suggested by Augustus Hailey, an English professor whom Caroline has known since her university days. Caroline is trying to recover her position in academia after a bout of money-lust sent her to Hollywood to write films—an experience that left Caroline broke and unemployed, living with her parents, and fearful that she had lost her poetic gift.

Augustus will be Caroline’s mentor in Jackson. Good-looking, generous, and self-assured in his homosexuality, he knows and is liked by everyone in town. His first step is to whisk Caroline off to the funeral of the wealthy and powerful Jean Lyles, the woman who had founded the Jackson theater. Now Jean is mourned not only by the cabal and her family but also by Mack Stanford, her lover who is less than half her age. Stanford is a source of much friction in the dead woman’s family. The funeral will be the perfect place for Caroline to see all of Jackson society, and possibly some fireworks as well.

Family tensions are not the only source of fireworks; Jim Jaspers, the town’s most popular psychiatrist, appears at the social gathering following the funeral. Clad only in his boxer shorts, his shirt tied around his head, he shouts mystic challenges at the funeral guests. No one can calm him down; no one can determine whether he is sick or drunk or high on drugs.

For the next few days, gossip about Jaspers’s behavior fills Augustus’s telephone. Nearly everyone in town has confided something potentially dangerous to Jaspers; now Jaspers’s patients fear that he will tell the world their secrets—sexual, financial, or political. Augustus’s attitude is cautious and charitable, but he tells Caroline that he has seen needle tracks on Jaspers’s arms and fears that drugs are the cause.

In the midst of this community upheaval, Caroline meets Celia Montgomery, a wealthy trustee of the college who is concerned about her difficult daughter CeCe, who dreams about becoming a writer. Celia invites Caroline to a Delta house party for the blues festival in Greenwood, hoping that during the weekend she may have a chance to counsel with her.

In this way, the novella’s themes emerge from a multitude of beginnings and endings. The start of Caroline’s new job at Millsaps is marked by her success with her new classes (even the wayward CeCe seems charmed by her new teacher) and new friendships, including the one with Celia Montgomery and a romance with Celia’s doctor, Royals Connell. Her new life is marked also by two funerals and newly conceived twins. On her way to the house party, Caroline thinks about the great levees that hold back the Mississippi; she see them as emblems of human strength and cunning that channel the river’s power. She then compares them to the people of the Delta. Like the river, these people make up a driving force, one that creates art (a...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)