That quotation from The Store sums up a lot about The Colonel’s character pretty aptly, and demonstrates why I’m finding real depth in Stribling’s novel. Colonel Miltiades Vaiden is a man who does the right things for the wrong reasons—and a few wrong things for what he, at least, believes to be the right reasons. There’s a moral flexibility to The Colonel that is interesting because his spectrum doesn’t run from good to evil, like a character in a melodrama. His spectrum seems to be based much more on honor, like a samurai’s bushido or Achilles’ pursuit of timë and kleos, only he combines this obsession about personal glory with a personality that seems much too milquetoast to carry out his career with success. I alluded to Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman played by William H. Macy in Fargo, in my last post, and there’s a lot of Jerry in The Colonel still, despite the fact that Miltiades is a war veteran who clearly had access to a better reserve of courage at one point in his life.
The Colonel’s straining for glory hits some unexpected curves in the point of the story I’ve reached—I continue to be intrigued by his plot line, even as he becomes more and more reprehensible. What I like best about Stribling is the way his novel sides with the African-Americans living in Florence in the subtlest of ways—he lingers on certain images (the starving family in the darkness rejected by Jerry Catlin, the look in Grace’s eyes as she delivers bad news, etc.) like a director taking an extra beat at the end of a scene before the movie moves on. The narrator is a personless omniscient 3rd person voice, so there’s no one to opine about the plight of impoverished black people—just the reality of who they are as people, and it’s a reality Stribling never lets too far away from the stage, even though it rarely takes the spotlight.
One of the sides that I therefore find most fascinating is the attitude The Colonel holds towards the people who were formerly his family’s slaves. They bear his surname of Vaiden, and continue to feel a connection to him. He feels the connection also, and carries it in a variety of ways—at times he seems sympathetic, and deals with them almost as though a distant family member, but too often their names and lives seem to be his possessions. He can deal with them as he likes, not because they are Vaidens, but because they are the Vaidens’—no longer legal property, but still somehow beholden to him (in his mind) because of some unspoken bond between them. The fair hair and eyes of some of these young African-Americans is such a visible marker, for me, of the real biological connections between the families, but Miltiades seems blind to it. Given my examination of my family’s history (which is explored online in two places thanks to my conversations with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates about his and my ancestors—black and white families named Smack and living in the same Maryland town—and what I’ve come to learn about them), this is personal for me. And personal in a way I hardly know how to share. Was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather a Miltiades, looking down on (and simultaneously emotionally bound to) Ta-Nehisi’s ancestors, his own son or nephew or cousin? Or were we better than that, somehow—a family who accepted the black Smack families as freed individuals before the war? Is it possible they could have acknowledged real kinship to each other? And what would it mean to me, if so? If I am lucky, some day I may find out the truth about our connection—by which I mean, only to know that he and I share an ancestor (and what that implies). But the rest of it—the truths I want to know about how these men and women thought of each other and spoke to each other, how they made sense of their lives in relationship to each other—these are truths I cannot even think of looking for. They are lost to me.
So reading The Store draws me (and weighs on me) because I can see how complicated these relationships were after the war (Stribling makes them feel very honest, at least—I trust that he is showing me the real South at the time), and almost against my will I am forced to walk in the white Vaidens’ shoes. I ask myself how this complicated blend of ideas and feelings, some of them contradictory, came to be, and how long it would have to take to change those feelings. I ask myself what events would really make these families separate and equal, to appropriate (and change the meaning of) the language of Plessy. Would it take dying side-by-side in a war? Voting side-by-side in a polling station? Sitting side-by-side as children marry each other across racial boundaries? When would the wrong bonds be broken, so that the right bonds can form?
Stribling’s doing something that works, here. He knows how to play this game—how to distract with the left hand while the right sneaks the rabbit into the hat. All the things that should go wrong for The Colonel go right, and the last things he expected to fall apart, do. I’m still working out what this story is really about, but the more I read, the more I think The Colonel himself is a waved handkerchief, a puff of smoke. His story is real and matters, but Stribling wants to keep me focused on him in order to bring other guns to bear. I’m trying to pace myself a bit and enjoy this (as I did with Wharton’s novel), but I won’t be able to slow down much: I’m hooked.