Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 1998 (#9)
Lord of Dark Places
Turtle Point Press ($14.95)
by Daniel Garrett
Hal Bennett's Lord of Dark Places, originally published by W. W. Norton in 1970 and recently restored to print, is many things: a twentieth century novel; a biography of a young sex god; a family drama involving self-sacrifice, betrayal, and incest; a document of black American migration from the rural south to the urban north; a story of the 1950s and 60s with civil rights legislation and Vietnam as touchstones; a spiritual journal; a crime drama and murder mystery; an episodic tale of transgressive social relations, including interracial friendship and a bisexual ménage à trois. It is also satirically funny, perversely sexy, and subversively philosophical.
The book's main character is Joe Market, whose life we follow from age twelve to thirty. Joe's grandfather Roosevelt is lynched and castrated by southern white men for winking at a white woman, and Joe's father Titus spends part of his own youth masturbating while reading the Book of Solomon--race and sex are part of Joe's family background and constitute the more troubling parts of American history. Titus starts a new religion with Joe as its principal icon, the Naked Child. Although Titus thinks most religions are basically designed to make the approach of death less scary, he thinks that the naked black male and his phallus will be an affirmation of blackness and a repudiation of the self-negation of Christianity. Titus preaches, Joe undresses--and for a special donation Joe touches individual members of the congregation. Titus tells Joe, "Always give in when you're tempted. That way, you'll never have problems with your conscience." As the years pass, Joe realizes that sex is all he knows how to do. However, in light of outrageous racism and economic necessity, Joe continues with Titus and his traveling show of religion and sex.
Every novel contains several stories, several themes, and in this one certain stories most exemplify the predominant aspects of Joe's life, American history, and this novel. These stories focus on race and sex, intraracial betrayal, national politics and war, interracial conflict followed by understanding, and the evolution of married love. The first of these emblematic stories is short, but so rawly sexual and indicative of differing social status that it is a primal scene, richly symbolic: Joe walks in a new neighborhood and sees a house and yard fenced and locked, with a sign barring blacks, dogs, and Catholics. A hateful, lusty white woman has been locked in by her father. She sees Joe, takes down the sign, and through intimidation forces him to fuck her through the fence (she threatens him, using racial difference, and his fear hardens his penis). Joe finds that white genitalia is no different from black. After sex, the woman puts the sign back up and goes into the house.
The second thematic development is of a father's betrayal. Joe and Titus engage a whore with whom Titus becomes infatuated. Titus, suspicious of Joe's ongoing interest in the whore/wife, decides to alert the police to Joe, but Titus is himself arrested and sexually assaulted by them.
Joe escapes to the north, where he hustles sex without religion. By the time he's twenty, he decides that the difference between north and south is that northern whites are sneakier. Joe does meet one white man he can trust, and this is the third story. A young Italian policeman encourages Joe to get an education and the two become friends. They talk, drink, smoke grass, and sleep with women together. This genuine friendship--rooted in a sense that each is a human being and capable of growth, surprise, loyalty--is what is available when people choose to perceive and act in unexpected ways.
The fourth story deals with Joe's time in Vietnam, in which he understands that America treats much of the world the way it treats blacks. He realizes that the basic conflict in society is not between races, sexes, or erotic orientations, but between people and government. The final story follows Joe's marriage to a mother-dominated classmate who moves from weakness and sexual thralldom to independence, forcing Joe to accept this. Through these various narratives, Joe moves from ignorance to knowledge, from lust to celibacy to love, from spiritual arrogance to spiritual humility, and from lawlessness to confession and atonement.
The novel is a classic picaresque tale, full of adventure and wit. It can be compared to Stendahl's The Red and the Black, also about the professional and erotic careers of a young man, and to Bocaccio's The Decameron, as well as to more recent titles by D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, and James Purdy. It also joins a canon of fiercely intelligent African-American novels focusing on individuals who struggle to claim their complete heritage--of identity, relationships, multi-cultural community, and meaning. These novels include Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring, on the Harlem Renaissance and black bohemian life, Richard Wright's The Outsider, with a black male existential intellectual protagonist, James Baldwin's Another Country, Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, and Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, as well as particular works by David Bradley, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Percival Everett, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker. If Hal Bennett is not usually mentioned in this broader context it is likely because of his long exile in Mexico, and his own critical and cavalier regard for society and tradition.
Bennett is as casually transgressive in speech as he is pointedly transgressive in his work. About black people: "We feel unclean as a racial group. That might be a sense of physical filth." About black writers: "I can only mention two or three black writers . . . I don't know all of them, nor do I read all of them." About James Baldwin: "What I'm trying to do is be a counterpoise to James Baldwin. He is trying to be a conscience. I'm trying to undo the sense of being a conscience." About Ralph Ellison: "You know, I've never felt invisible. I deny his basic premise." About Ernest J. Gaines: "Look, in Miss Jane Pittman, her act is to go out and drink at the water fountain. No I want large rebellion. If I'm going to have rebellion, I want it large. I don't want it misinterpreted as seeming small or sneaky." (Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1987)
Clearly, Bennett's rebellion is large and Lord of Dark Places is a major novel. One answers an affirmative yes to most of the questions of import that can be asked about it. Is this book beautifully, imaginatively, thoughtfully written? Yes. Does it have great, eccentric characters, full of energy, ideas, sex, and truth? Yes. Does it tell significant stories about the country and world out of which it comes? Yes. And the meaning and pleasure it provides are destined to last.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 1998 (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998