Finally. After a string of novels that meandered between “acceptable” and “dissatisfying”, we have a real winner on our hands in The Store. I don’t have unlimited praise to offer Stribling, but right now I’d say this is easily in the top 4 of the Pulitzers I’ve read so far, and it may be in contention for a spot as high as #2 on the list.
Getting at why is, in some ways, very easy. Stribling is managing to present a wide array of characters who are all three-dimensional—full of that mixture of emotions, motives, flaws and strengths that make up people like you and me. Even the above-average Pulitzer novels thus far have only managed to present one or two main characters in this level of complexity, with the exceptions of the incomparable Edith Wharton and the talented Thornton Wilder. That I’m putting the relatively unknown T. S. Stribling in their company is high praise, I know, but so far it’s deserved. What he captures most beautifully is how self-centered every human’s worldview is: Person A takes an action for some private motive, but Persons B, C, and D each assume A must be motivated by some personal slight or vendetta aimed at them specifically. Stribling’s handy enough with the characters that I can simultaneously think it’s laughable that young Sydna Crowninshield would expect that family friend Colonel Miltiades Vaiden has taken a job at the Handbacks’ store out of some misguided attempt to protect her virtue and good name, and yet completely understand why, from Sydna’s point of view, no other motive can be half as believable. Everyone’s private agendas are well known to Stribling and the reader, and we can see how they intersect—sometimes harmoniously, sometimes disastrously—and how two characters can be talking to one another, and yet be having two different conversations. Stribling’s not operating at an Austen or Wharton level of psychological insight, but he’s doing very sturdy work and is making the characters come alive, which is all I need to get hooked.
And yes, miraculously, Stribling’s novel (set in the post-Reconstruction South) extends that level of complex dimensions to his black characters. Racism is rampant in the town of Florence—slurs fly, and even the best white folks express the vilest sentiments with the most light-hearted of airs. Stribling is being very honest in presenting this, but it would collapse the novel (for me, anyway) if he didn’t present black characters as individuals with some level of dignity and agency. This is not, incidentally, the same as presenting the black characters as “the good ones”. He’s actually taken care to demonstrate their motives as being similarly complex—the wizened “man of God”, Lump Mowbray, whose impulses are not entirely pure; the proud “white negro” (as everyone refers to him), Toussaint Vaiden, whose confidence is either inspirational or arrogant, depending on how you think a man should respond to condescension; Gracie, an experienced mistress, consort of the powerful and white, whose plans for her future seem on the borders of delusion. They aren’t the butt of the narrator’s jokes, as black characters have been in many novels thus far. But they aren’t here to teach us the virtues of enduring scorn with patience; they’re here because they live in Florence, and the vicissitudes of their daily existence affect events both large and small as much as the actions taken by a man like Colonel Miltiades.
The Colonel is clearly our main character, but Stribling has at least five plots on the burners right now—The Colonel’s dream of a better, more financially successful life; the strange interrelationships (and attending obligations) of all the men who served in the The Colonel’s Confederate regiment, and their families; the courtship of the delicate Sydna Crowninshield by the lascivious Lucius Handback (and others); the spiritual journey of the self-described “infidel” Jerry Catlin (The Colonel’s nephew); and the attempts by Toussaint and his mother Gracie to find a way to escape Florence and find a home where he (and she?) can pass as “white”, and the future that will come with it. There’s a lot of overlap here, since The Colonel is a major figure in two plots, and is only one degree of separation from the other three. This is a small town, and everyone is in everyone else’s business, whether it’s welcome or not.
The Colonel is fascinating to me, in part because he combines so much ambition with so much haplessness. He’s dignified but without being accorded societal respect; he’s honest and decent in his public dealings, but more than a bit scheming and unkind in his private thoughts. The sentence that begins this post is spoken to The Colonel, and expresses part of his paralysis: he thinks a man of his distinction and service ought to be lauded (and he expects someone to seek him out), but he thinks it would be gauche to thrust himself into the limelight. But that kind of dignified privacy only really operates in full view of the crowd: in the shadows, he’s a bit less particular about his aims and means. At the point I’ve reached in the novel, he’s about to try and undo a familial disaster he suffered two decades prior by engaging in subterfuge that is utterly unlikely to succeed: his Jerry Lundegaard moment, if you will. He is just as appealing and appalling as Jerry is, and therefore just as watchable. The Colonel also provides us with a really easy connection to all the levels of society in Florence—he thinks of himself as upper class, and has connections to that world, but he lives among the relatively low middle class. He has business that takes him among the rural poor—where, significantly, he is generally idolized as a war hero who led many folks’ fathers and uncles in battle—and his commitment to a certain level of basic fairness (along with his past as an overseer on a cotton plantation) give him a place of some small importance in the eyes of local black farmers. I know, I know…in some ways it sounds like I’m describing Wang Lung, who I could not stand in the last novel. I can’t really say what appeals to me about The Colonel, beyond the fact that he seems more human than Wang Lung, and that his particular flaws make him far more of an underdog (and therefore more pleasant to observe and even root for).
The only thing that continues to bother me is Stribling’s ridiculous approach to The Colonel’s wife, Ponny. As I mentioned before, he lays on about her weight pretty aggressively in the opening paragraph. This continues throughout—the narrator never calls her “Ponny”, but always “his fat wife” or “his fat wife, Ponny”. Whenever The Colonel sees her, we get some remark on her “shapeless bulk” or how “non-sexual” she is in his eyes. Stribling can’t say something like “He briefly embraced his wife as he left.” He can’t even say “He briefly embraced his fat wife as he left.” It’s usually something like “He reached his arm around her large back, his hand gripping her pudgy shoulder, as he laid a brief kiss on her ponderous, swollen cheek.” I recognize that it’s important to build up how disgusted The Colonel is by his wife, at least physically (he seems at least somewhat affectionate toward her personally), since it ties into some larger narratives about what The Colonel has done with his life and how it might have been different. But the extent to which he’s going with the adjectives and the repetition becomes a parody of itself. It also degrades Ponny as a real person, and not just some globular plot point, more than I think he should—in the end, I’m just disgusted by her, and not sympathetic to her, because Stribling never shows her through anyone else’s eyes, and certainly not her own. (This is a real contrast to the black characters, who are often spoken of in the harshest terms, but who stand on their own two feet, and about whom the narrator is generally very neutral, if not even somewhat sympathetic.)
In short, for once, I have a novel I think I can really recommend. If you’ve been looking for a read, and want to take a trip through the post-War South with me, I think this will reward your investment of time. I’ll have a lot more to say about this one, I think, and it’s really nice and refreshing to be able to look forward to reading it and sharing those thoughts.