Mayhem by Elizabeth Harris. October 2015.
Winner of the Gival Press Novel Award.
When the author, Elizabeth Harris, was eleven years old, she was taken to a small Texas town to visit an old aunt who was waited on by a “white woman.” The woman wasn’t a servant. Nor was she a relative, or a friend exactly. Later Elizabeth, intrigued, asked her mother who or what the woman was. A companion, a guest? No, her mother said, no. “Then what is she?” she asked. Her mother couldn’t or wouldn’t say.
As the seed of the novel (and a very good novel it is) this might remind you of Henry James’s famous words, in “The Art of Fiction,” that a writer must be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” He was countering Walter Besant’s somewhat ludicrous claim that a writer must write, and write only, from extensive personal experience. James cited an English novelist he knew, “a woman of genius,” who needed no more personal experience than a passing glance, as she ascended a staircase, of young people “seated at a table round a finished meal” to serve as the basis for a brilliant tale much lauded for its authenticity.
Harris does something similar, though more, building on the first impression: there were other visits, when she was still a girl, in the 1950s, to other small towns, and other live-in, “able-bodied white women.” When she’s grown, they continue to haunt her and she wonders “how to explain those women’s hold” on her memory; she discovers that, invariably, “stories of wrong clung to these women.”
To know why, you have to understand a culture, not just of rural Texas, or the South, but most of America, especially between World Wars I and II. Harris leads us to inhabit the time in the hundred ways a good novelist does: the aromas in a kitchen of the time, how droplets fly in sparkles off the ends of fingers, swimming in the river, the avenues of sun through the pines … And of course the people. This isn’t the place to get deep into family histories, but Harris’s characters are as true and memorable as any in American literature. If there’s an oddity in this novel it’s that Harris at times cites other novelists; she notes that her old aunt, Auntie Theriot, might have been conjured by Katherine Anne Porter (born not so far from the town of the novel). We may wonder, why does she tell us this? it’s as if the author is trying to disarm, saying this may seem familiar, but please stay with me. She needn’t have asked—we’re with her all the way; her Aunt Theriot is far more interesting than any Granny Weatherall. Other characters who populate the book are from German families that immigrated to Texas in the 1800s, Kunkles and Schlegels and Heimsoths; and there are the Gants (shades of Look Homeward, Angel), the Southern contingent, who are courageous, blockheaded, at times admirable (one wins a Bronze Star in the Pacific in World War II), and at times detestable. No one is worse, though, than Charlie McCoy, who is, interestingly, both perpetrator and victim of terrible events. He is unforgettable and wonderfully so—real and vile and whiny—or as the author says, he’s like a “greasy residue” in the memory.
By the time we arrive at the brutal crime at the center of the book, we’ve begun to understand that the real mayhem of the title is something far greater than any of these characters understand; it expands like a subtle earthquake, or like silent ripples in a pond. It won’t give anything away here to say there’s a trial and the verdict is “Guilty.” But it’s not that simple. The crime may not have happened, or not entirely. As readers we may think the true crime is the one committed by the town against the “white woman.” She does have a name, Evelyn. She is one of the Kunkle girls, who married a Gant. We all know of crimes that can’t be prosecuted because witnesses are afraid to testify, or crimes that are obvious yet maddeningly elude justice as in Truman Capote’s novella “Handcarved Coffins,” but Harris’s mayhem is more strange, something that can’t even be acknowledged by anyone. Only Auntie Theriot comes close to the truth, and only after many years (at about the time the novelist, Elizabeth Harris, actually visited her). Finally, we readers know; and at last Evelyn has her victory, though only a small one—as in life.
But wait, the story’s not over. All along, the author has been telling us (in her welcome, unpretentious way) about her art—remember her odd references to other novelists? Quietly this has been striking to the deepest truth of what she is trying to do, and sets up the last chapter. It is only a page and a half, and is an amazing piece. It makes the novel suddenly grow larger, in a surprising way, and is nothing short of brilliant.
This novel is strongly recommended.
Author Elizabeth Harris won the John Simmons Prize awarded by University of Iowa Press for her first book, The Ant Generator. Her individual stories have appeared Antioch Review, Epoch, Chicago Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, and anthologies such as The Iowa Award and New Stories from the South. She won a Faulkner Pirate’s Alley competition for an earlier novel. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas-Austin.