By Sid Kara
PublishAmerica, 269 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Sid Kara's debut novel, Life's Only Promise, is clearly a labor of love; a passionate cry against injustice by a young and idealistic writer.
Set in the Mississippi of the early 1900s, Kara's book details the hollow promises of Emancipation and how they have already turned sour a few decades after the Civil War. Just as novels such as Toni Morrison's Beloved depicted the harrowing, brutal world of slavery, Kara's novel takes us into the harsh, subterranean world of chain gangs and forced labor.
Weaving historical fact with fiction, Life's Only Promise tells the story of a black sharecropper named Fulton Chapman who leaves his home in 1905 in the hopes of finding a better life for himself and his young daughter, whom he leaves behind while he goes to find work on the railroad. A series of mishaps results in Fulton being wrongly convicted and leased to Parchman Farm, where he and the other "gunmen" are to pick cotton for the state.
Brutalized by the guards, tormented by the merciless Mississippi summers, weakened by the wretched living conditions and scarcity of food, Fulton endures the surrealness of his new surroundings. For a long time, only the memory of his old home and his waiting daughter sustain him. But as year piles upon year, the memories and hopes of reuniting with his family dim.
An aborted escape kills the last iota of hope in Fulton. The prisoners are tracked down by militiamen. Fulton jinxes his own escape by coming to the rescue of his beloved old friend, Moondog. Many of the recaptured prisoners die of their wounds and many others are lynched. Watching Moondog's lynching freezes something inside Fulton's heart and he spends the next several years in total silence. The squalor, violence, and brutality of Parchman have taken the energetic, hopeful young man that Fulton was when he entered the plantation and turned him into a dull, deadened, middle-aged zombie.
Kara, a native of Memphis, is particularly effective in describing the attitudes of a racist South in the first half of the 20th century. The sheer worthlessness of black life is made amply clear, as is the racial superiority and economic avarice that allowed places like Parchman to exist.
His portrayal of J.K. Vardaman, the racist governor of Mississippi, is particularly effective. Kara captures the combination of prejudice, malice, connivance, and populist bluster that elected Vardaman to the state's highest office. And he shows how racism requires the collusion between politics and business interests in order to survive.
But Life's Only Promise does not treat its black characters as one- dimensional victims. Over and over again, we see Fulton's friends, such as Moondog and Corliss, display a fighting spirit. Much as their slave ancestors did during the slave rebellions, the gunmen refuse to go gently into the night and indeed go to their deaths with dignity and defiance. We also see that the yearning for freedom is as intrinsic as hunger or thirst and that this yearning propels Fulton and the others through their darkest hours.
Some of the passages in the novel that describe the treatment of the gunmen are so graphic and blood-splattered that they make the reader flinch. Occasionally, the violence borders on gratuitous but then one remembers that violence was the story of black men's lives. Still, in the hands of a more mature writer, these passages could have been handled with more sophistication and sensitivity.
Kara's youth comes through in the writing. For every passage that is smooth and direct, there is another where the writing is wordy, bombastic, and over-the-top. The phrase "unfulfilled dreams" pops up at least three times. Flowery sentences like "He felt the schism between his selves begin to buckle under the force of his memories, and he felt that he was losing control over the architecture of his being" are distressingly common and take away from the trajectory and emotional heft of the novel. Kara could have clearly benefited from a strict editor.
On the other hand, Kara has a good ear for dialogue. The rural Southern dialect and colloquialisms are realistic and never strained. They go a long way toward giving the novel its depth.
Kara, who graduated from Duke University in 1996, apparently gave up a career as an investment banker in order to finish this novel. He is already working on a second book that deals with the international trafficking in women. These are serious subjects for a young author to be tackling, and it is heartening to see that Sid Kara has avoided the pitfalls that besiege many a young writer: He has avoided the temptation of his first novel being a coming-of-age, thinly veiled autobiography.