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Tom Chaney: Does the Cut Worm Forgive the Plow?

Of Writers And Their Books: Does the Cut Worm Forgive the Plow? Tom reviews A Father's Law, a posthumous novel by Richard Wright, giving a prescient examination of generational and class conflicts. This column first appeared 31 August 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Why Not Peace?

By Tom Chaney

Does the Cut Worm Forgive the Plow?

White is not Black. Black is not White. All color? No color? We can neither know ourselves nor those most like us. How then can we be sure of our knowledge of another's racial heritage?

Fiction at its best provides a tentative beginning to that knowledge. The images are not always clear. They flicker on the wall of a cave like shadows produced by a searing flame apt to blind if seen boldly.

Richard Wright has given us some of the best defined shadows in his life's work. Of that work the two most important books are his novel Native Son and his autobiography Black Boy.

Now we have a posthumous novel released by his daughter on the 100th anniversary of his birth. A Father's Law [Harper Perennial, 2008] takes us a bit further into the mind of this major figure in black literature.

If Bigger Thomas of Native Son exemplifies the psychology of murder, that is "the sociological, racial, political, cultural, and historical forces that, given a certain context, opportunity, and lack of communication, can lead to the act of murder in most of us" then Ruddy Turner, chief of police, contemporary of Bigger, shows us how one can fail to understand his own son and believe him capable of murder.

Ruddy -- black, Roman Catholic, Republican -- is ready to retire as a captain in the Chicago police force. "All outward signs [are that] he has made it."

"His neighbors were white," Wright writes. "He did not have to fear hoodlums loitering about his premises. He had at once, as soon as he had purchased his property, joined the neighborhood protective association to guard the interests of all who owned property in the area, and he had been accepted with enthusiasm." Agnes, his wife, is devoted.

Tommy is the problem. He is the antithesis of his father. He is studying sociology at the University of Chicago. He is reserved. He is an academic. The staccato tattoo of his typing marks the distance twixt father and son.

Ruddy is called to the police commissioner's office in the middle of the night. The police chief of an upscale suburb has been murdered. Ruddy is to take over the job as police chief on the spot with a mandate to solve the murder as well as a series of baffling sex crimes.

The novel is designed as a psychological thriller. It does not have the development of plot to really succeed in that genre. "However," as one reviewer noted, "A Father's Law succeeds in its prescient examination of the generational and class conflicts that await black Americans as they move from the margins of society into the cultural mainstream."

The relationship between Ruddy and Tommy becomes symbolic of Wright's view of how black progress would separate one generation from another -- Tommy distant and reserved; Ruddy suspicious of Tommy's involvement in the crimes he must solve.

This novel existed in draft form at Wright's death in 1960. His daughter Julia discovered it in Wright's Paris flat after he died. She does not recall whether she rolled the last page out of the platen of his Underwood or found it in a folder at his bedside.

Neither the intricacies of plot nor the development of the theme of generational separation are fully developed. After all this is the first draft. We can be thankful almost half a century later to have this voice from beyond the Parisian grave.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-09-01 00:50:38
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