Robert E. Fleming
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)
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....
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