Vance Bourjaily

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

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.

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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 begins, deceptively enough, as a minor enough matter and becomes basic to the expression of a concept about death that is one of the book's two major themes.

The other theme involves Mr. Bradley's conception of history. It is, as a matter of fact, mirrored in the change in John Washington's storytelling manner…. At first, quite expectedly, John is professorial; he tends to talk, as Judith points out, in little lectures. They even incorporate verbal footnotes….

As the book goes on, John becomes more an involved storyteller and less a detached historian. He is saying, indirectly, that a historian cannot really be detached. By the climactic part of the book, he is relying on narrative imagination, not research, to understand what really happened in Chaneysville and to his father. Truth in history, we are invited to consider, may not be determined by facts. Though they come first, what really happened—as old Jack demonstrated to John, and John now demonstrates to Judith—can only be learned by creating from those facts a story that satisfies them all.

From this notion about history, the book's other central theme emerges. It is introduced halfway along, when John Washington is still talking and writing like a professor, if by now a rather impassioned one: "That is what the Slave Trade was all about. Not death from poxes and musketry and whippings and malnutrition and melancholy and suicide: death itself. For before the white men came to Guinea to strip-mine field hands … black people did not die … the decedent … took up residence in an afterworld that was in many ways indistinguishable from his former estate."

The tragedy, in this view, for American blacks was Christianization, with its teaching that "death is cold and final," that the body becomes dust and the spirit may be subject to eternal torture….

What blacks must do, John Washington feels, is recover belief in a religion, and particularly a view of death, suited to their African natures. The voodoo beliefs of Haiti perhaps come closest. It is just such a recovery of belief that explains both Moses' death and the Chaneysville incident, but you must follow the beautifully rendered and wildly adventurous chase that is part of John Washington's climactic narrative reconstruction to learn how.

On the way to this revelation, there are many sequences, mostly well done, some a bit Victorian in their plotting, to carry the reader along…. There has also been a fair amount of whitebaiting of the rather standard kind (cf. Malcolm X and the Ayatollah), which only those white readers far gone in guilt and masochism will find gratifying or even interesting. This, we understand eventually, is a product of John Washington's attitudes, not David Bradley's. But it may be that we perceive an ironic distance between author and narrator too late in the book—on Page 431 of the 432, to be exact. For here occurs the most dramatic possible surprise, the surprise of John's forgiveness and apparent willingness to become reconciled.

Let's maintain that the establishment of this distance between John Washington and David Bradley needed earlier preparation; it's not the easiest thing in writing to manage anyway. But the author has managed so many of the other things—and none of them especially easy either—that his novel deserves what it seems pretty sure to get: a lot of interested and challenged readers. (p. 20)

Vance Bourjaily, "Thirteen Runaway Slaves and David Bradley," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 19, 1981, pp. 7, 20.

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