'Magic Time': Doug Marlette rehashes the turbulent '60s, but only lightly drawn and scarcely shaded

Claudia Smith Brinson
The State (Columbia, S.C.).

"Magic Time" takes us back to the South of lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt officials and earnest students, to the Freedom Summer of 1964. What's most interesting about the novel is the structure, a constant and smooth movement back and forth between 1964 and 1990. This works and constantly reminds us that the past is always with us.

Carter Ransom, a New York news columnist, collapses after the bombing of a Big Apple art museum. He is sure his girlfriend or her son were victims. His fears are realistic, given their schedules, but they are safe.

He isn't, though; his past demands his attention. His sister takes him home, to Troy, Miss., to recover, but he can't escape himself.

In 1964, Carter loved Sarah Solomon, a college student teaching and registering voters during Freedom Summer in his hometown. Troy also is the hometown of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan:

"Responsible for more murders, more church bombings, worst terrorism of that era. You name it. Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney. Vernon Dahmer. Shiloh Church bombing."

In 1964, Carter is a law-school dropout whose father is a judge with secrets. The judge does not approve when his son and his housekeeper's son, Elijah "Lige" Knight, reconnect. Nor does he approve when Carter begins reporting on Freedom Summer for the local paper.

Lige leads protests, working from Magic Time, a blues joint now Ellis County headquarters for the young members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Carter's friendship with Lige and romance with Sarah make him privy to much that should alter his views, but he's so expert at denial he talks himself out of applying meaning to a KKK robe in his coach's basement.

We learn quickly that some of those young people will die - not in a bombing but in a shotgun and Molotov cocktail attack - and that Carter's father will preside over the ensuing trial.

But this is about unfinished business, so author Doug Marlette offers plot twists and revelations in the 1990s when Sam Bohannon, the Imperial Wizard likely responsible for the deaths at Shiloh, finally is brought to trial.

Unfortunately, as you can tell from the plot summary, Marlette offers the familiar.

We can see the "surprises" coming because we know the story. We have met in other fiction his characters, who are types: the attractive and aggressive female attorney, the stoic judge, the one-eyed bully, the sly and on-oxygen villain, the dim-witted local character, the noble youth, the white-trash racists and the powerful-elite racists.

Carter's high-school girlfriend tells him, "God, we were so ignorant back then. I love this town in so many ways, but I despise it too for its power to deform."

That's about as deep as this gets. Carter, reflecting on a lynching corpse he discovered in '64, tells himself, "At the time, he was just beginning to awaken to the sin of his people, but if he was honest with himself, he would have to admit that he had not experienced collective guilt. ..."

And this all gets wrapped up with hostages, the humiliation of a hip NYC photographer, a cathartic stabbing and a happily-ever-after romance.

This is the second novel for Marlette, who was born in Greensboro, N.C., and spent some childhood years in Mississippi and Florida. He is better known for his career as a cartoonist. Marlette has worked for various newspapers and, in 1988, his editorial cartoons, most focusing on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their PTL Club scandal, won a Pulitzer.

He also produces a comic strip, "Kudzu." Both the strip and his editorial cartoons are syndicated.

"Magic Time" is an engaging if shallow read that comes nowhere near matching the real stories.

Try Diane McWhorter's - "Carry Me Home: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution," which won a Pulitzer. Or Taylor Branch's trilogy on the Movement; the first book, "Parting the Waters," won a Pulitzer. Or Melissa Fay Greene's multiple-award winning "Praying for Sheetrock" and "The Temple Bombing."

There you'll find terror and hope, drama and suspense plus rich and complicated heroes - real people who risked real lives and made the real news in our own amazing history.


"Magic Time" by Doug Marlette; Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($25)





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