Hal Bennett Critical Essays

Bennett, Hal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bennett, Hal 1936–

Bennett is a Black American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

A Wilderness of Vines was a flawed, awkward, at times ineptly written, but insightful and occasionally provocative work engaged in a speculative effort at historical detection that permitted—encouraged, really—large and often uncontrolled displays of compassion and a kind of frenetic energy. It was more an apprentice fiction, a work-in-progress, than a finished novel, and Bennett himself was a writer in search of a style. With this first effort, however, Bennett did succeed in locating his subject: He began to explore the meanings implicit in his vision. He was on his way to elaborating the American racial trauma into a symbol with universal application in his fiction, to creating a very private—yet accessible and historically illuminating—mythology able to penetrate the root strategies and disabling consequences of two other examples of myth-as-history—race and sex…. [It] is still somewhat surprising that his performance in Lord of Dark Places has not earned him recognition for what he is: one of the most original and gifted Black satirists to come along since Wallace Thurman of Infants of the Spring.

Lord of Dark Places is a fine and in many ways an extraordinary satirical novel, a tour de force alive with moral intelligence and a knowing, sensuous awareness of the dark, fluid underside of American experience. It offers as protagonist an outrageous Southern youth whom innumerable histories—racial, sexual, religious, national, familial, etc.—have conspired to make a phallic hero and records his inevitable victimization and progress over a doomed and all [too] often absurd landscape into eerie recesses of contemporary ambiguity and neurosis, even into the age's sexual yearning for death. At once blackest comedy, savage indictment, and lyric celebration, a strange, disturbing testament to the powers of resilience and moral suasion, the novel illustrates Auden's dictum that in bad times writers turn to satire, for it carries in its depths something of the weight and meaning, the drive and versatility, the despair and defensive optimism of this particular moment in our cultural life…. Whatever is finally said about Lord of Dark Places, it marks Bennett's emergence as a writer of seriousness and luminous talent wrestling with the demons Myth and History. His achievement, to borrow a figure from his fiction, is that of the magician/priest able to persuade us against all odds, and in the dead of night, of the human possibility. (pp. 37-8)

Like most first novels, A Wilderness of Vines stakes out a claim on a fictional territory. It introduces the important thematic concerns of Bennett's novels: his interest in myth and archetype and their recurrence in patterns of social behavior bordering on the surreal, and the controlling imagery and metaphor of his fiction. As it reveals a great deal about his satirical technique and aspirations, it suggests perhaps even more about his highly idiosyncratic vision: its disorienting, yet finally comforting, shifts between jaundiced social comment and sentimentality. Not successful as a novel, Vines is important as a prodigiously ambitious first chapter in a history of the post-Civil War Black American to which Bennett's novels and short stories bear witness…. While Bennett's may seem to be a world of excesses … what one remembers in this fiction is not the extremity of its position, but the achievements of tone and mood, the unnerving reserve and controlled, endlessly provocative understatement: in a word, the disconcerting detachment that informs the fiction at its best moments and that speaks with eloquence, as well as rage, of things mean and dispiriting. (pp. 39-40)

The setting and to a large extent the subject of A Wilderness of Vines is Burnside, Va., a farming community of tobacco plantations "owned by Negroes of high complexion, and worked by Negroes who are darker-skinned, or black"…. (p. 40)

The central metaphor of Vines is that color in Burnside has attained the status of a religion, with clergy and laity, prescriptions and penalties. Burnside's Blacks are impelled, by a certainty of the damnation inescapably attending Blackness, to engage in abysmally degrading and ludicrous efforts at an exorcism made possible by the logic of self-hatred. The satire's content, though, does not always derive its meaning from the satire's form, and emerging from this technical failure is nothing less than a new eschatology, a new mythology, the unexpected drama of myth countering myth. While this eschatology and mythology do not quite amount to a simple matter of color and moral inversion, they do rehearse, albeit for different purposes, certain abused, and abusive, notions of Black sexuality and soul. (pp. 40-1)

Satire, perhaps more than other novel fictions, depends for its success on stylistic and technical facility. As a purely technical accomplishment, A Wilderness of Vines is not a good book. Tonal ambiguities, failure to establish and maintain aesthetic distance, expository details excessively, even redundantly, repeated; disorienting shifts in style between surrealistic exaggeration and naturalistic depiction and, hence, problems in authorial voice all combine to limit the success of the fiction as fiction. One effect of these inconsistencies is the satire parodying itself…. At times, the metaphor of the novel is imposed on plot details rather than emerging from them, and the imagery is too frequently obtrusive and self-consciously portentous, which applies as well to the novel's underscoring of theme. Metaphor and imagery comprise the novel's unquestionable area of success and suggest Bennett's concern and very real talent for exploring technical matters. When metaphor and image are integrated into the texture of the novel's experience, they work, and dazzlingly. (pp. 45-6)

What Bennett gives us here is the stuff of racial stereotype at that point where stereotype is transformed into archetype. Bennett is saying what we all know but invariably prefer not to face: that a stereotype could not exist if it did not have something to do with the truth, if it did not reveal with some accuracy what one group of people feels about another. Where Bennett makes his leap is here: stereotype may also reveal with some accuracy what a people feels about itself. It is at this point where common cultural assumption is elaborated "in so accurate and energetic a way" that deepest cultural drive finds expression, where stereotype does indeed become archetype, and fiction myth. Myth in A Wilderness of Vines has not been fully elaborated by any means, but the first outlines of such a myth are present. And this, I think, is the real drama of Bennett's fiction, its real subject, and its real meaning both as fiction and as social comment.

The central metaphor of The Black Wine is a somewhat shocking Old Testament formulation of the loss of innocence: the world is a whorehouse and all its travelers whores—which suggests something of the tone, the grimness and sense of dismay, and hence of earnestness at work in the novel and at odds with the humor and attempt to achieve perspective-through-exaggeration normally present in Bennett's satire. Bennett, as a matter of fact, is not greatly concerned with the aims of satire in this novel, which is the least satirical of his works and is more consistently effective as historical and sociological study than as fiction. (pp. 46, 89)

Loosely constructed, curiously devoid of dramatic tension, overwritten in spots, poorly written in others, and, as in Vines, given to heavy-handed symbolism and underscoring of theme, the novel attempts to impress several of its more obvious meanings upon the reader by endlessly repeating passages…. (p. 94)

Yet …, The Black Wine contains two incredible scenes that far more successful and consistent novels might not equal…. Both scenes are devastating portraits, microscopically observed, of those gestures, self-deceptions and errant stupidities that make for social living and so much of the grief inherent in the human situation. They are also very funny, capturing with seemingly effortless ease not merely the broad outlines of scene and mood, but those richly revealing turns of mind and phrase that define personality and from which all genuine humor obtains. They are very good.

As in Vines, the successes of The Black Wine do not lie in the areas of plot construction and characterization, so much as they do in its imagery. (pp. 94-5)

[Sex] in this fiction is a mode of inquiry and speculation, a way of plumbing the roots of character and the strategies of culture at the point where sexual obsession originates as much from the logic and ironical perversities of culture as it does from the logic and aberrations of personality. The workings of self and culture comprise a literally fantastic history of sexual misery which, the novels suggest, is the story of race in this country. Implicit in this inquiry is the question of whether a given culture ever fully succeeds in manipulating those mythical structures that surround and in a sense support it; the answer, also implicit but far more tentative and partial, is that at unexpected moments myth may very well exploit culture, astounding its meanings, counteracting its strategies and arresting its rituals in ambiguity. If this is where A Wilderness of Vines and The Black Wine end, it is only where Lord of Dark Places begins. (p. 97) [Walcott's essay continues in the July issue of Black World, excerpted below.]

Ronald Walcott, "The Novels of Hal Bennett," in Black World (copyright © June, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Ronald Walcott), June, 1974, pp. 36-48, 89-97.

Hal Bennett's Lord of Dark Places is a satirical and all but scatological attack on the phallic myth, the original American folk drama in which the white female as virgin and bitch goddess and the Black male as defiler and nigger stud are the two central figures. If one accepts America herself as seductive matriarchal player, the phallic myth is also the archetypal drama of incest, and with a vengeance. This is the dominant metaphor of the novel. So it is that that common cultural assumption …—the Black man as sexual monster dwelling in the social imagination—finally obtains in Lord of Dark Places its essential and, for Bennett, inevitable form.

Lord of Dark Places is where Bennett's fiction has been heading all along, and it arrives in this powerful, aesthetically satisfying, tightly controlled novel possessed of a plot that fairly explodes with incident and invention. It covers territory Bennett has traveled before, but this time, he owns it. For if, as Leslie Fiedler has put it [in "Archetype and Signature (The Relationship of Poet and Poem)"], literature comes into being at the moment archetype is rendered through a sufficiently complex and singular Persona or Personality, then Lord of Dark Places is Hal Bennett's signature. Like Richard Wright before him, Bennett does not deny the logic of the myth so much as he burdens it mercilessly with sardonic affirmations, elaborating his metaphor with muscular energy and dazzling technical facility, consummately and even perversely bringing the myth home to roost. By so doing, he inflicts upon his readers, white and Black, the guilt that attaches to the myth they perpetuate as well as the fear that it might just be true.

At the same time, Bennett attempts to counter the myth of the phallus with the myth of innocence—the controlling myth of his fiction. Eclectic to an extreme—part satire, myth, blues, bildungsroman, detective thriller, social commentary, parable, and, as it must be, exorcism—Lord of Dark Places explores facets and implications of the Edenic myth as it parallels and can be used to comment on the Black man's American experience from freedom to the trek North: the loss of innocence, the expulsion from the garden (i.e., migration from the South to the North), the attempt to live with the fact and consequences of one's own evil (here, one's complicity in the country's racial madness), and the search for a new Eden—equality, of course, but also a "reawakening of the ability to love," an acceptance of responsibility and morality that ties us not only to ourselves but to each other. It is a search that begins with the individual self and ends, if indeed it ever can end, with the larger self that is society. (pp. 79-80)

[It] is the language that arrests our attention and distances Lord of Dark Places from A Wilderness of Vines and The Black Wine, that aligns it with the verbal resources of Black folk culture, with its metaphorical intensity, earthiness, and facile, if endlessly deceptive, "naturalness."

Here for the first time the design of Bennett's fiction is assimilated to a functional idiom that enables the third-person narrative to become, for all purposes and for long stretches, a vernacular narrative. The story is told, it seems, as each of its characters would tell it in his own voice, which means that it is able to impart a sense of the mystery of personality inherent in language itself. Most of the unique features of the novel follow from the decision to create an individual voice and rhythm for the narrator, a style with roots in an apparently nonliterary and unself-conscious culture. In its flair for the humor and undiminished joy in things physical located at the center of idiomatic expression, the novel demonstrates again and again a sexual vocabulary that takes to startling heights local capacities for improvisation, surprise and lyricism. Not to be confused with the so-often condescending or suffocatingly quaint renderings of folk dialect, this is a technical Black American speech rarely seen in literature, and then in the "blue blues," what Paul Oliver calls [in Aspects of the Blues Tradition] the vital thread of vigorous sexual song. (p. 82)

It is [his] affirmation of possibility, rigorously defined and controlled, that distinguishes Bennett's work and pushes it back from the edge of sentimentality. Lord of Dark Places, then, as luminous Black fiction and as complex exploration of thesis, is an extravagant satirical comedy in the sense that comedy is tragedy gone mad. And if the novel tells us nothing else, it insists that even in madness there is hope. (p. 96)

Ronald Walcott, "The Novels of Hal Bennett," in Black World (copyright © July, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Ronald Walcott), July, 1974, pp. 78-96.

[Wait Until the Evening] is, in several important regards, an impressive and provocative piece of work. It is also, in ways not much less important, frustrating and heavy-handed. Bennett writes with grace, humor, feeling and intelligence; he has a vivid, angry imagination that can both shock and delight. But when that imagination runs to excess, as in this novel it does rather frequently, it gets Bennett into trouble.

"Wait Until the Evening" is narrated by Kevin Brittain, a black man with a sharply developed sense of irony whose story begins in the early years of World War II and reaches its climax in the present. He is a boy when we meet him, living with his parents and grandparents in the Virginia countryside; when the novel ends he is in New Jersey, embittered and ripe for violence. It is the classic American story of the passage from innocence to [worldliness], but much altered by the particular circumstances of being black and by Bennett's extravagant plot. (p. 14)

[When] Bennett is good he is very, very good…. His feel for rural Virginia is as strong and accurate as William Styron's. The novel is written very much from a "black" viewpoint, but Bennett reveals himself to have a deep understanding of the complexity and difficulty of interracial communication. (p. 16)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1974.