Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Reviewed by Gill Davies

atticalockePleasantville is the third novel by Attica Locke. I remember that the reviews for her first novel, Black Water Rising, were very good but regrettably I didn’t get round to reading it. I certainly will now! This is one of the best crime novels I’ve read in ages. It’s a sequel featuring Jay Porter, a lawyer specialising in environmental cases who defends ordinary people against big corporations. In it the personal and the political are thoroughly intermixed. It opens with the run-off election for mayor of Houston being contested by Axel Hathorne, a black former police chief, and Sandy Wolcott, a white woman and the district attorney. (Law and disorder are everywhere in this novel.) Pleasantville is a black neighbourhood that has decided the result in the past and is thus the focus of electioneering. Hathorne has the apparent advantage of being the son of Sam Hathorne who in Pleasantville’s early years was a crucial figure in bringing housing, work and prosperity to the neighbourhood. This “heritage” and the history of African-American activism runs through the novel. The campaign is thrown into disarray by the murder of a young woman who was apparently working for Hathorne’s campaign, and one of his aides, his nephew, is implicated. Jay Porter, known for his campaigning work on behalf of local people, is drawn into the case as it seems to be contaminated by political motives and electoral wrong-doing.

So you have a nice mix of plot lines and human interest, and a mingling of fictional with real events. Although a “crime novel” – and a very good one – it is also a vivid portrait of the real Pleasantville, a suburb of Houston, Texas, established after World War 2 to meet the growing aspirations of its African-American population. It is set in 1996 at a turning point for politics in that community: there are the elders who fought for better housing and schooling as well as for the right to vote; the next generation (including the protagonist) who were involved in the radical protests of the 60s and 70s; and global corporations, especially those involved in oil and petrochemicals, who wield more power than the democratic process itself. It’s a fascinating and revealing picture of American social and political culture in the 1990s.

There are several strands to the plot: a girl is murdered, possibly by a serial killer; there is a closely and dirtily fought electoral race; the central character is marooned by a recent personal tragedy and trying to trying to raise his family alone; and his successful legal campaign (in the earlier novel) against Cole Oil Industries has yet to produce tangible results for his suffering clients. Attica Locke brilliantly threads together these separate narrative strands so that they are resolved with speed and elegance in the final few pages of the novel. In doing so she manages to combine a gripping thriller, a critique of the American political system, and a novel about the inner working of black American communities. She interweaves generic elements of the private detective genre, the court-room drama and the political thriller with a realistic picture of everyday black American life in Houston.

One stylistic aspect of the narrative that interested me was its use of the continuous present tense. This has become ubiquitous in contemporary literary fiction and has been attributed to the influence of screenplays and film, or the obsessive present-ness of our media and internet-dominated lives. (It has even been blamed on creative writing courses and their assumption that the continuous present is more exciting and immediate.) I have often found it irritating, but here it seems right. The setting of the novel, just 20 years ago, means we know what is coming next – though the characters are unaware of this. Clinton has just been elected  but after him there will be George W Bush’s dubious victory, the groundwork for which is being laid in electoral tricks in Pleasantville. What is coming is a sequence of defeats and set-backs for black Americans and the liberal consensus.  The present tense makes the reader feel – as the characters are – trapped in a developing situation that they don’t understand and fear they can’t control. It’s a great device for a novel in which much of the plot hinges on past concealment and present secrets and lies. From our historical perspective we know what the characters can’t, but at the level of the plot we are as bewildered as they are.

So I strongly recommend you read this accomplished and compelling novel – I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

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Attica Locke, Pleasantville (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2015). 978 1846689482, 420pp., hardback.

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