“Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses with stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond.”
I am happy to report that in the eco-conscious 70s that Richmond (probably with some EPA and superfund money) was able to clean up the James. You might still get an amoeba if you drank from it, but the chemical plants and the crust-scum is long gone. Still personal pollution, but that’s a constant problem. Sorry for Milton Loftis, patriarch in this family novel that Richmond wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be now.
This is not a Richmond novel, by the way, but a Tidewater novel, with Port Warwrick being a stand-in for Newport News. There’s lot of Richmond in the novel, and a LOT of Charlottesville. If you’re familiar with Virginia, and especially with UVA and Southern fiction, the university (ahem sorry, the University) is often the bugaboo of Southern writing where young gentlemen go to learn to drink. I mean that’s every college in the South in Southern lit, but Faulkner especially liked to cast a lout as being a UVA student.
This novel takes place primarily in the late 1940s after the war, but lives in the past, like a lot of novels. We meet Milton Loftis, his wife Helen, and their two daughters Peyton and Maudie early on, and learn of various family tragedies that have afflicted them over the last twenty years, bringing us to the contemporary time of the novel, and then move back into the past in various ways and various angles (and in various literary styles) to learn how we got here. It’s a haunted book in so many ways, and so many of the scenes are rendered beautifully and eerily.
The book owes a lot to Faulkner, and for me specifically The Sound and the Fury for reasons that are apparent when you’re reading. It’s a solid novel, and not exactly Styron’s best, but it is a deeply impressive first novel. It’s funny to think about this novel having read Sophie’s Choice first where the young Styron, about the age of the author when he wrote this novel, is somewhat lampooned by his older self (with some tenderness), while Milton Loftis cannot offer any sympathy for the younger version of himself who has created the life he’s now imprisoned by.