A Southern Drama

Clock Without Hands (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), the masterly new novel by Carson McCullers, is best approached through its four main protagonists, who inhabit a small town in Georgia. J. S. Malone, age forty and owner of a pharmacy, learns that he has leukemia and is given a year to live. He has been a passive man who drifted into a rut, and the imminence of death makes him painfully aware of "the life he had spent unlived." The only man to whom he confides his misfortune is old Judge Clane, the town's leading citizen, a former congressman whose beliefs are fantastically—indeed, farcically— reactionary. Deprived of what he cared for most—his wife, the son he worshiped (who committed suicide), the satisfaction of his gigantic appetite (the doctors have forced him to diet), and a place in the political arena from which to uphold white supremacy—the judge, in spite of the presence of his beloved grandson, Jester, finds his life frighteningly empty. He decides to act on a long-cherished dream which will make him the restorer of the South's glory; it is to induce Congress to redeem the currency of the Confederacy by claiming as the South's due the aid accorded to other vanquished enemies, Germany and Japan.

To help wage this campaign, Judge Clane engages as "amanuensis" a clever blue-eyed young Negro, Sherman Pew, an orphan whose past is a mystery to which the judge alone knows the answer. Sherman becomes the joy of his life; he takes letters, reads aloud "the immortal" Longfellow, makes the judge's toddies, and drinks with him. What the judge does not realize is that he is anathema to Sherman, a proud champion of "the Nigerian race" and wild hater of "Caucasians." Sherman's longing to make a crazy gesture of defiance against segregation precipitates the story's crisis, in which two of the characters find themselves and two are destroyed.

The book differs appreciably from McCullers' earlier novels. It contains, to be sure, the theme which has always been at the center of her work—man's loneliness and the eternal flaw in the machinery of love. The judge's son, we learn, turned against him; Jester's admiring devotion toward Sherman is received with chilling condescension or rudeness; Malone suffers from his complete spirtual isolation; and Sherman tries to cover up his by boasting of mythical travels, sexual conquests, and experineces of high living. But another and more helpful theme is dramatized; the novel, as Miss McCullers points out, "is about response and responsibility—of man toward his own livingness." The judge and Sherman, bemused by their obsessions, destroy themselves. But the wretched Malone, when chance singles him out to execute the verdict of the mob against Sherman, finds, for the first time, the courage to act in accordance with his conscience. And Jester emerges from his daydreams and uncertainties with the conviction that he wants to carry on his father's work as a lawyer: to fight on the side of justice against passion.

Readers who have wished in the past that Miss McCullers were a bit less fascinated by abnormality and grotesquerie may find this the most impressive of her novels. For the elements and devices of Gothic art are far less in evidence. The craftsmanship is impeccable, and there are two magnificent characterizations, in which there is a rich vein of wry comedy. The judge is an imaginative, full-bodied, complex creation; and Sherman, if less complex, is equally brilliantly realized. To my mind, Clock Without Hands is a strong contender for the 1961 National Book Award for fiction.