Climbing the family tree through a thicket of slavery

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IN THE FALL By Jeffrey Lent Atlantic Monthly Press 542 pp., $25

There's something suspicious about the power of Jeffrey Lent's "In the Fall." Is this really the work of a first-time novelist, or is it some late discovery of a book by William Faulkner?

"In the Fall" moves through three generations of the Pelham family with stunning success. The novel starts in gloaming silence, deep in the Vermont woods, and builds like a thunderstorm coming over the horizon. By the end, 60 years and more than 500 pages later, the lightning scalps your soul.

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When young Norman decides to do his part in the Civil War, he and his father have nothing to say to each other. "They rode on to the strained creak of harness leather above the heavy wheels crumbling the road dust, the father's heart clattering as if loosed from a pivot in his chest and the heart of the boy also in fearsome ratchet."

When he walks back to Vermont three years later with a young black wife, his father is already dead and enough personal and national history has been interred to poison the ground for decades.

Norman's mother and sister hold the right Abolitionist notions, but those are sorely tested by the presence of the first black person they've ever seen. Leah is a headstrong woman who escaped slavery in the final months of the war by murdering her one-armed owner in Sweetboro, N.C.

Though Norman adores her, though her in-laws accept her, though her three new children delight her, eventually nothing can quell her thirst for knowledge about the family she left behind.

The past is a palpable presence in this novel, never fading so much as sinking into the soil out of which each new generation grows. Lent has an almost geological patience when it comes to laying down the layers that make up his plot and characters.

Weary of the taunts and isolation of being a mixed-race child, Norman's youngest son, Jamie, slips away from the farm while the others sleep. The novel's second part shifts to Bethlehem, N.H., where Jamie quickly falls in love with a crude bar singer from Quebec and remakes himself as a bootlegger in a thicket of corruption.

If the novel has any flaw, it's a touch of pulp that swells up during a few love scenes. Violence and rape cause all kinds of physical and emotional problems for these characters, but their lovemaking still sounds like one of Victoria's Secrets.

Nevertheless, Lent proves himself as adept with this small-time gangster tale as he is with the story in the deep Vermont woods. Jamie's growing frustration with his unstable life is perfectly, painfully drawn. "He rose each day," Lent writes, "not rested but further abraded as if the sheets and the hours in the armchair worked at the thin layer of skin over him that was daily nothing more than a sack to hold his stranded heart."

In the novel's final section, Jamie's son, Foster, returns to his grandmother's story, driven by the same deadly urge for knowledge and understanding that ruined her life.

Now almost entirely dialogue, the novel shifts to Foster's conversation with an old man who seems to hold the key to his family's genealogy of anguish. By this time, we're entirely caught up with Foster's grimaced search for the truth, a racial history fitfully buried beneath generations of lies and generalized guilt.

Confronted with his blood-soaked past, Foster "wondered how a man might know this and go on." But in the end, he realizes that knowing this is, in fact, the only way forward.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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