The first time, after I finished Three Delays, I couldn’t pick up another work of fiction for six months. I couldn’t stand reading a single word of anything; every word, every idea paled so miserably by comparison.
I thought surely that was a fluke — c’mon, that wouldn’t happen again. I’m a reader! I love to read! I read all the time! Then his publisher sent me a copy of his new novel, Ginny Gall (out later this month), and, guess what: I haven’t read so much as a cereal box since I finished it three weeks ago.
Ruined by genius. I am plagued.
This novel is set in the 1920s, the Jim Crow era in the U.S., when abject cruelty was the protocol of the day. It’s about a little 5 year-old black boy named Delvin Walker whose mother, a prostitute, is forced to flee for her life after being accused of killing a white man. The story opens there, and then we are slowly, richly walked through Delvin’s next two decades of life, as he meets and is mentored by a series of older African American men with much wisdom but about as little luck, rides the rails, falls in love, lusts for life.
Delvin is brilliant thinker, like the author who created him, and a lover of both reading and writing. He carries around a notebook, into which he jots breathtakingly evocative notes on both his internal and external scenery. Eventually, Delvin is falsely accused of the sexual assault of a white woman, and the latter portion of the novel involves his time in prison, where he is brutally sexually assaulted himself, and his eventual escape and return home.
This is a long novel, and if it had been written by someone lesser, it would’ve been insufferably so. I often pass by novels this long, to be honest, because a good 4 times out of 5, I spend most of my time reading them thinking, “What up, editor?” But Ginny Gall wasn’t written by someone lesser; it was written by Charlie Smith. And that means every individual word is a poem, right down to the pronouns, the lowercase letters that ought to be uppercase, the single adjective in front of a singular noun. There was no point in this novel where I caught myself wanting to speed up, antsy to move to something else. In fact, I did the opposite: I slowed way down, I read every word, some of them more than once. I jotted notes in the margins. I underlined. I dog-eared. I meant to share it with someone else, then found I couldn’t bear to lay myself that wide.
Someday, I will read it again and make fun of myself for finding so moving at least half of what I found so moving.
(I can’t wait.)
“The singular occasion of reprimand and the sorrow it uncovered and the moment of silence it revealed. . .”