David Bradley Vance Bourjaily - Essay

Vance Bourjaily

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whatever else may be said, and there's apt to be a lot said about David Bradley and his second novel, "The Chaneysville Incident," the man's a writer.

What he can do, at a pretty high level of energy, is synchronize five different kinds of rhetoric, control a complicated plot, manage a good-sized cast of characters, convey a lot of information, handle an intricate time scheme, pull off a couple of final tricks that dramatize provocative ideas, and generally keep things going for 200,000 words. That's about two and a half books for most of us….

John Washington [is] the book's narrator, and, like the book's author, he is young, black and a college professor. John Washington teaches history and lives in Philadelphia with a white psychiatrist named Judith….

[John is summoned by a] disreputable old man named Jack Crawley [who] is dying and has asked for him. It's the second such summons. When John was 12 and his father, Moses Washington, had just been buried, "old Jack" first asked for the boy….

Young John becomes old Jack's pupil in woodsmanship, hunting and whisky-drinking; he also becomes the chief listener to Jack's stories, and from them learns a great deal, much of it about trouble between the races. The principal character in Jack's stories is Moses Washington. John's father was a legendary moonshiner and eccentric; feared by many for his violence and cunning, he accumulated wealth and influence during his lifetime and died a mysterious death. (p. 7)

[As] John sits with the old man in his shack on the wrong side of the hill, he becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of his own father's death. This solution, though, depends on the solution of a far older mystery, that of "the Chaneysville incident" from which the novel takes its name. The incident took place in the time of the underground railroad, when 13 runaway slaves, about to be recaptured, were shot instead—at, so the tale goes, their own urgent request—and buried in 13 tenderly laid-out graves.

By this point in the book, John Washington has taken over old Jack's role as storyteller, and the listener now, tensely enough, is the white woman, Judith. (pp. 7, 20)

[Mr. Bradley's more favored characters display an anti-Christian bias.] It...

(The entire section is 958 words.)