Praying for Sheetrock

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

So emphatic is Melissa Fay Greene that Praying for Sheetrock is a work of nonfiction that she includes the phrase as a part of the title. Perhaps she feared that her use of novelistic techniques might lead the reader astray into believing that the stories she tells, the history she recounts, are imagined or distorted. Without resorting to journalese, she employs some of the reporter’s tricks to make her work more immediate: background stories, anecdotes of local color, repetition, and just enough narrative tension to push her tale forward. Consciously or subconsciously, she absorbs and uses to great effect some of the techniques Truman Capote developed for In Cold Blood (1966). She re-creates conversations without unnecessary asides and, more important, in the language she heard in McIntosh County. This skillful use of dialect establishes character in ways that expository description could not.

Her own narrative voice is distinctive, assured, often poetic, as in her introduction to the place about which she writes: “McIntosh County, on the flowery coast of Georgia—small, isolated, lovely.” She never forgets that it is home to the men and women, black and white who help tell her story. She says, “If the Messiah were to arrive today, this cloudless, radiant county would be magnificent enough to receive Him.” Its beauty, however, is deceptive. The grinding poverty of its residents is all too real and ugly, and, until recently, the corruption so pervasive that the county’s name was synonymous in the state with good-old-boy political chicanery. For example, one of the effective ploys to keep the black citizenry in line was to allow them to plunder wrecked transport trucks on busy U.S. 17.

From the aftermath of just such a wreck, the book gets its title, and for a people as dependent on miracles as on the economy to get by, God took on the epithet of “Sheetrock- Deliverer.” Finally one man, a disabled black boilermaker named Thurnell Alston, decided his community could no longer depend on the whims of God or the vagaries of white men for justice. The men and women of McIntosh County had lived so long under a time- honored, not always benevolent despotism that, at least on this local level, Alston was revolutionary in thinking that law could be impartial and that each man and woman deserved a voice in deciding how he or she would be governed. If McIntosh County resembled a feudal realm, it was because the sheriff, Tom Poppell, had made himself lord and master, and under him certain whites and one or two chosen blacks as his nobles. Poor blacks and whites were, pure and simple, the serfs, destined to await the largesse of Sheriff Poppell and the other elected white officials.

Yet, as the author describes the place, it was peaceful for the inhabitants, if not for the unlucky transients who stopped enroute to Florida: “For most of this century, there was a strange racial calm in the county, consisting in part of good manners, in part of intimidation, and in part because the Sheriff cared less about the colors black and white than he did about the color green, and the sound it made shuffled, dealt out and redealt, folded and pocketed beside the wrecked trucks and inside the local truckstop, prostitution houses, clip joints, and warehouse sheds after hours.” It was a place, then, where everyone knew what was going on and, in general, accepted it, a place where problems for the old were taken to the church and for the young to the juke joint. Greene emphasizes that special local circumstances, at least particularly Southern ones, dictated that “when angry groups of blacks and whites faced each other, everyone would know everyone else’s names and addresses, and know their mamas.” They would also all be armed to the teeth, a dangerous stalemate that ironically forestalled violence.

The confrontation came when a white deputy, annoyed by the drunken bantering of courtship, shot a black man in the mouth and threw him in jail without medical attention. The black community, abuzz with the news, came together in protest, and the Civil Rights movement in McIntosh County was born. Its undisputed leader was Thurnell Alston, who along with Sammie Pinkney, a retired policeofficer, and Nathaniel Grovner, a preacher, brought the tactics of protest and confrontation to bear on a system of patronage controlled by Sheriff Poppell. He had actually employed black deputies and had “allowed” blacks to register to vote in the past. He depended on their voting in a bloc for his hand- picked candidates after 1966. Until that time, he manipulated the process so that no black man or woman could have been elected to the county commission, but he was a wily and astute politician who thought that he could control the shape of the inevitable changes he saw elsewhere when they came to “his” county. In that year, his black candidate, a 78-year-old man, was elected to the commission so that federal minority...

(The entire section is 2025 words.)