Whistling At History
Reviewed by Trudier Harris
Vol. 15, No. 4, 1993, pp. 28, 24-25
Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan (Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, 1993, 308 pages).
“Irreverent,” was my first reaction. And: “These characters aren’t rising above stereotype fast enough to suit me.” Next:”Too self-consciously aware of the novel being based on an historical incident.” Then: “Hmm this guy knows the black and white folk speech of the South, like an ear for things such as ‘I own know’ for ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Co-Cola’ for ‘Coca-Cola.'”
With this mixture of reactions, and several others that alternated with them, I raced my way through Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle. In a matter of hours I had completed a book that was alternately sad, funny, outrageous, informed, violent, tragic, and lingering. It lingers because I expected the novelist to do what the historians, newspaper people, and lawyers did not do—let the dead child raise his voice and reveal to me something that I didn’t know before. I expected Nordan to pull back the veil of history and take me to a place of understanding, not one that would make 1955 any less painful, but that would make it more tolerable. And after all those reactions, I reminded myself. “This is a novel. It was written by a man who was profoundly influenced by an historical event, but it is a novel. Let it take you places. Don’t impose your expectations upon it.” It is from that rather ambivalent—and hard to maintain—perspective that I offer the following comments.
Evoking the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen year-old boy from Chicago, in a small town in Mississippi, Wolf Whistle moves quickly from the scene of offense, to character studies of the white personalities central to the case, to the murder, the trail, and the aftermath of this “disturbance” (merely that, because the majority of the townspeople go so easily back to their routine existences). Set in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi (arrow catching is a senior varsity sport in this town), the novel follows Alice Conroy, a local school teacher; Uncle Runt and his family; Solon Gregg, the “white-trash” villain; and the Poindexter Montberclair couple, with wife Sally Anne as the unwitting recipient of the wolf whistle. And it is about Bobo, the character based upon Till; listing him last here is commensurate with the perspective of the novel, for it is the whites who hold
center stage in this fictional creation.
My mixture of reactions to the novel is perhaps tied to a seeming ambivalence on the part of the writer. At times, I felt Nordan was intent upon probing the emotional and spiritual ugliness that led to Till’s death in 1955; there are some striking moments of introspection and analysis in the novel. At other times, I felt Nordan was parodying his own subject and characters with the use of names (Lord Montberclair,” “Jeter Skeeter”; the elderly relatives with whom Bobo is staying, viewed from the white perspective, are simply referred to as “Uncle” and “Auntee”; “Balance Due” and “Belgian Congo” are respectively the names for the white and black dilapidated, poorest of the poor sections of town), the blatant anthropomorphism (sentient birds and rice fields), and jokes about personal hygiene (Runt always smells like “birdshit,” and his son’s feet are so perennially unwashed that one of his classmates claims that she can smell them the minute he walks onto the school grounds).
Yet just when I am about to criticize these seeming irreverencies, Nordan surprises me with an understanding of the rather intricate relationships between blacks and whites in the South. Blues musicians sing on the porch of a white-owned grocery store (references to Robert Johnson and hellhounds are prominent) while black children play their games there; Runt tries to warn Bobo’s relatives that he is in danger; and the hardest-headed member of the arrow catching team sympathizes with Bobo when all his white classmates are making bad jokes about the murder. Even Solon Gregg listens to Muddy Waters on his truck radio.
As a scholar of African American literature, I was particularly struck by the evocations of African American literary texts that Nordan’s novel brought to mind, those of Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jean Toomer, and Toni Cade Bambara. The Till character, for example, carries the heavily destined name of Bobo, and a local lawman is Big Boy Chisholm. Bobo and Big Boy are the names of two rather famous characters in Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home.” Even Nordan’s pattern of narration suggests Wright at times. He begins outside a character’s mind, then goes inside; visual representation parallels that movement by language shift from standard English to dialect. Initially, the transition and the dialect seemed stilted, but I was lulled into its effect as the novel went along.
Bobo’s sentience beyond death evokes Morrison’s Sula, Wright’s Mann in “Down by the Riverside,” and J. California Cooper’s Always in Family. When pigeons have a conversation about Bobo’s offense, the sixth chapter of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God comes to mind (though the buzzards here, tagged by scientists, are named after ex-governors of Mississippi). References to “Lord” and “Lady” Montberclair and “Runnymede” evoke Brooks’ treatment of the murder as a failed Arthurian romance/ballad in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi: Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Bums Bacon.” And the typographical rendering of conversation reminds me of Toomer’s Cane. Consider this small sampling after Bobo has been taken from the home of his relatives:
Uncle pulled on his brogans. He said, “I’ll walk to the telephone at Sims and Hill, call the High Sheriff.”
Auntee said, “Wont do no good.”
Uncle said, “I know.”
Auntee said, “What’s the High Sheriff gone do?”
Uncle said, “I know.”
Auntee said, “Get you lynched, is all.”
Uncle said, “I know, Auntee.” (146)
And when several flash-forwards occur, along with Alice Conroy turning into a fortune teller, I think of Toni Cade Bambara’s treatment of extranatural characters and futuristic events in The Salt Eaters.
I tried to sort through the effect this inadvertent intertextuality had upon me as an African American reader. I concluded that the shock of recognition finally had a mediating effect. In a world where black readers might be particularly skeptical of any writer, and particularly a white one, daring to attempt to fictionalize the atrocity of the Till murder, the familiarity with other texts blunted my potential negative reaction to the implied trespass on novelly subject matter. These accidents of literary creation also kept me in the world of creativity and out of the realm of factuality for which I had initially gone looking.
Treading on problematic historical events is a daring venture under any circumstances. Underlying any such undertaking, where documents stack up for miles, is the question: How can you humanize villainy? How could Nordan make the murderer of the Till character someone who would consistently engage readers? I think he answered the question by wallowing in the villainy. Just facing it head on—saying, essentially, here is an unChristian (though he believes otherwise), unredeemable human being whose very effrontery is his attraction.
Of course it can be argued that Nordan attempts to “humanize” Solon Gregg in the scene where he returns from New Orleans to the bedside of his fatally burned nine-year-old son. Wordless, he simply takes his guitar and begins strumming his son’s favorite song; his wife and daughter join in with their homemade instruments (washboard, tub). This nearly touching scene is gainsaid, however, by the reason for the son’s burning.
The question of bringing characters to life affects Lord Montberclair in a strange way. When initially confronted by the prowling Solon, he wields his German Luger in disgust at the “white trash” invading his territory. Class immediately gives way to race when Solon reveals his story. The problem is that the change in Lord Montberclair is too sudden; he dissolves too readily into a wimp. The characterization of Alice seems more a bow to feminism than to 1955 Mississippi. With the imaginative field trips for her fourth grade class, Alice Conroy brings an understanding of power relationships that seems a bit too advanced for the times. Strikingly, Bobo and Sally Anne, the two characters who are presumably central to the historical event, are almost absent from the text. Sally Anne appears to receive the wolf whistle, is seen from a distance in the courtroom, and shows up again to bond with Alice at the end of the novel. Bobo is mostly silent, which is a strange situation for a young man whose voice got him into so much trouble.
When he is taken from his aunt and uncle’s home, Bobo says nary a word during the entire ride with Solon to his place of death. This in spite of the fact that Solon carries on a stream of so-called casual conversation. Nordan succeeds in creating a surprisingly strange effect. We know what’s going to happen; Bobo knows what’s going to happen; and Solon knows what’s going to happen, yet he keeps up this polite “conversation” that gets poured into the seeming vacuum of the truck’s interior and the brooding, anticipatory state of the reader’s mind. Bobo is silent, seemingly not there spiritually or physically. When he becomes present again is the problem. After death, he becomes sentient. While he still does not gain voice, he registers and observes things about him in a lyrically haunting, unsettling presentation.
Bobo’s presence—or absence—is one of the reasons this book will get a lot of attention. The subject matter is precisely why I was hooked—and the fact that a former student of mine who worked for Algonquin books forwarded a copy of the advance corrected proofs to me. My expectation of some sign of transformation did not come in Nordan re-writing a specific historical event, but I think he attempted it in trying to suggest a different future for Alice, Runt, and Mississippi. The experience has such a profound effect upon alcoholic Runt that he almost sobers up (a friend of his shocks everyone by going to Alcoholics Anonymous,) and he insists that friends and relatives begin to call him Cyrus, his given name. His insistence upon that change is at best a limited sign of any different future, but it’s there, and its prominence calls attention to itself. Alice gives up teaching and perhaps her unrequited love for her college professor, yet she has been so on the periphery of the major action that it’s hard to see what her change means. And it’s somewhat disturbing that she is finally so ingratiating to Sally Anne.
I come away from the novel wondering what place it will eventually find in the literary mythmaking of Southern letters. It will be read, which I heartily encourage, for I certainly found it engaging. It will be discussed, with the academic types probably focusing on issues of literary representation and the appropriateness of particular kinds of literary endeavors. It might even find its way into history classes where professors want a literary representation of an historical event; with distance, tragedy inevitably gains a fascination that the immediacy of its horror initially precluded. Nordan’s novel will surely be considered an indispensable addition to a growing number of historical and fictional treatments of the Emmett Till murder.
Trudier Harris is A.B. Longstreet Professor of English at Emory University.