Robert E. Fleming

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

As the title implies, Fair's first novel, Many Thousand Gone: An American Fable (1965), is a metaphorical tale rather than a realistic depiction of life. Set in Jacobsville, Jacobs County, Mississippi, the novel presents a southern microcosm in which the slaves were never freed after the Civil War. Ridiculing the southern practice of rewriting the history of "The War between the States," Fair postulates a situation in which the twentieth century black slaves know nothing of the war, and whites in the surrounding areas do all they can to maintain Jacobs County as a citadel of old southern life…. (p. 477)

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Fair also deals harshly with the white world of the North, which has allowed Jacobsville to exist for a century. When a copy of Ebony slips past the post office censors and alerts the black population to the changes in the outside world, several people ask why no one has delivered them from slavery…. (p. 478)

Many Thousand Gone is an effective satire of the modern South and of the weakness of the nation as a whole in dealing with the treatment of southern black people. In hyperbolic terms, Fair points out that many of the same injustices that prevailed before the Civil War are still present one hundred years later; only the external forms have changed. While Fair's use of the fable may stem from his inability to provide realistic details about the modern South, it is a happy choice for the point he wishes to make. However, in his second novel, Fair turned to a deeper exploration of character and the careful documentation associated with naturalism.

Hog Butcher (1966) is the story of a young boy, Wilford Robinson, who sees his hero, Nathaniel (Cornbread) Hamilton, shot to death by two policemen who mistake the innocent teenager for a burglary suspect. Most of the novel deals with the attempts of the Chicago power structure to whitewash the incident…. (p. 479)

Fair's attack on the corruption in Chicago's legal system is more than mere journalism or sociology because of his skillful use of concrete details from Wilford's cramped home life. His success in drawing a thorough, believable picture of the ghetto and its inhabitants suggests that naturalism is still a useful literary technique for dealing with the city and its problems. Like his predecessor Richard Wright, Fair conveys a sense of the violence which lies dormant in the ghetto. (pp. 481-82)

Fair is extremely honest in his presentation of his black characters. He shows their cynicism, but he also illuminates the background of their attitudes…. On the other hand, Fair's greatest fault in Hog Butcher is his failure to treat white characters as effectively as their black counterparts. (p. 482)

With Hog Butcher Fair demonstrates that he can write an effective naturalistic novel. Intellectually, he moves from a consideration of the blatant racism of the South to focus on what might be called the "Great Migration fallacy": he questions the notion that life in the North is infinitely better than life in the South and finds that the North merely employs different forms of discrimination and cruelty. Artistically, Fair moves from the creation of representative, shallow characters in his fable to well-rounded, vivid major characters in his second novel. (p. 483)

[In his novella "Jerome"] Fair attacks the type of church that thrives on self-righteousness and a hypocritical observance of white middle-class values. Through his depiction of Jerome's parents, he delineates the psychological disturbances that break out in a black society which tries to whitewash itself. Jerome's gospel, on the other hand, stresses acceptance of oneself and others and kindness toward everyone…. Up to this point, Fair, like most protest writers, has attacked external problems such as discrimination, police brutality, and injustice; in "Jerome" he has shifted to a psychological problem of the black race.

"World of Nothing," the [title] novella in the book, is an episodic series of sketches unified by two main characters—the nameless narrator and his roommate Red Top. While it deals with the seamy side of life …, the tone of "World of Nothing" is kept deceptively light. The narrator is relaxed in his environment; seeing no way out, he hedonistically enjoys the pleasures that are available to him…. (pp. 484-85)

[Fair's] aim seems to be to show the bittersweet quality of life in the ghetto, to show how happiness can be salvaged out of tragedy. Fair thinks that white outsiders see only one side of the ghetto [as he said in an interview]:

You can see the television shows about the ghettoes and they always show you the sordidness of it, but there's beauty in it, too, and a way of life that the middle classes have lost.

Fair has successfully conveyed this unseen side of ghetto life in "World of Nothing."

Fair's four published works reveal his ability to view black life from various perspectives—to perceive the comic as well as the tragic, the mythic as well as the trivial and commonplace. Also important, however, is his ability to make use of a wide range of fictional techniques and forms to convey his different perceptions. His naturalistic treatment of Chicago's South Side ghetto in Hog Butcher is possibly the most powerful depiction of that area since Richard Wright's Native Son. Fair's use of fantasy in Many Thousand Gone and "Jerome" indicates that he is more than a naturalistic novelist, that he is willing to experiment with a variety of approaches. Finally, his comic pictures of the ghetto, accenting the carefree aspect of life which exists alongside tragedy, show the reader yet another facet of a versatile and wide-ranging creative imagination. (pp. 486-87)

Robert E. Fleming, "The Novels of Ronald L. Fair," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1972 by the College Language Association), Vol. XV, No. 4, June, 1972, pp. 477-87.

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