Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The essential theme of the novel is the search for what is real in the new South. Alan McLaurin comes home to a land he does not really understand to try to piece together his life and, more specifically, to try to understand Phoebe’s tragic death. To separate truth from fiction becomes Alan’s mission. A poet at the novel’s beginning, he seems to discard art as an organizing principle rather quickly, perhaps partially because his poetry is unsuccessful.

Douglas skillfully leads the reader along Alan’s discovery process. By telling the story in the first person, Douglas must reveal to the reader little bits of truth at the same time that she allows Alan to discover them. These revelations—the truth—have a powerful effect on Alan, driving him, a registered conscientious objector, to kill at the novel’s end. It is almost as if by finding out the truth about Phoebe’s death, Alan also finds out the truth about himself and about the world. This point is evidenced in the novel’s title, taken from an old spiritual about trying to escape: “I went to the rock to hide my face./ The rock cried out, No hiding place.’/ No hiding place down there.”

An attachment to the land, a major theme in many Southern novels, also plays an important part in this work. Alan returns not only to his native South but also to his “old home place.” There, living in a rustic old house, he observes nature and the seasons. With SPASURSTA, Douglas makes an obvious comment on the relationship between nature, the new South, and technology. When Sam finally loses all patience with the new technology’s invasion of his pastoral life, he attacks the radar station. Douglas seems to be saying that what destroys nature also harms mankind.

This fenced, steel, computer-operated SPASURSTA that sits in the middle of old Mississippi pasture land becomes a symbol for the blending of the old South and the new South. The old South, with its surreptitious miscegenation, its bigotry, violence, and steadfast commitment to the old ways, haunts Alan McLaurin, blinding him to the truth. To discover the truth, he must face and conquer these ghosts while realizing, at the same time, the futility of trying to destroy the machinery of the new, progressive South. The two, Alan learns, must live in harmony.