Books by Mississippi Writers 1996-2010
By Steve Yarbrough (Knopf hardcover, $23.00, ISBN: 0375411593, 5/2001; Vintage Books paperback, $13.00, ISBN: 0375725776, 8/2002) The South depicted in Steve Yarbrough's haunting new novel irresistibly calls to mind Yeats's famous lines, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity." The best and worst, in this case, are brothers who, despite their common upbringing, are diametrically opposed on issues of race. Tandy Payne, who returns to Loring, Miss., in the early 20th century after squandering his inheritance on gambling, whores and liquor, has absorbed all the hypocrisy and racism of the old South. Loring's mayor, Tandy's brother, Leighton, stands 6'5", harbors liberal opinions and is handicapped by a perpetual awkwardness. He runs Loring's newspaper and uses it as a platform for moderation. Yarbrough divides his story between the Payne siblings and Seaborn and Loda Jackson, who are black. Loda is the town's postmistress, the only African-American in the state with a government appointment. Tandy covets her job, and he decides to steal it by starting a race-baiting campaign, claiming Loda encouraged a black laborer to behave insolently. To prevent conflict, Loda resigns, but Theodore Roosevelt's administration decides to make a civil rights stand by not accepting her resignation. In the escalating dispute, Leighton becomes a pariah for siding with Loda. Connecting Loda, Tandy and Leighton is their common father, Sam, a plantation owner who massacred a group of black men and women who tried to escape the Delta in the 1880s. Based on a real 1902 incident, Yarborough's sad, elegantly wrought story proceeds like a mesmerizing lesson in the skewed logic of violence, and it builds to a powerful ending, a tragic testament to the dark heritage haunting the South. Yarbrough, who earned critical kudos with The Oxygen Man, has again written a novel that resonates with understanding and compassion. While his subject matter is somber, Yarbrough's restrained narrative pulls the reader into its time and place with beautifully calibrated suspense. Critical recognition that he's a writer to watch should bring attention to this novel. ―Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.