A Different Drummer (1962): William Melvin Kelley

★★★★

Hailed as a rediscovered classic, this 1962 debut novel examines the complexities of race relations in the American South, through the story of one extraordinary day. It’s a Thursday when the men who congregate on Mister Thomason’s shop porch see the salt wagon going by, up to Tucker Caliban’s farm. When they follow, they witness an unbelievable sight. Tucker, an African-American man who has only recently purchased his own land and built a house, methodically sows his entire acreage with salt, before destroying his livestock and setting the house on fire. He and his heavily pregnant wife leave without a word. In the days that follow, word spreads to the other African-American residents of the state and, one by one, they too pack up and leave. Kelley’s novel traces the roots of this event back through the history of the Caliban family and that of their employers and former owners, the Willsons. A blistering picture of a still-segregated South, it’s a sobering book – but one which proudly looks ahead to change.

It begins with a mythic tale about ‘the African’, a powerful chieftain who breaks free in the middle of his own auction and flees into the forests with his infant son. He’s hotly pursued by Dewitt Willson, the man who has just purchased him at enormous cost, who’s intent on regaining his property. The two men pursue a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, during which Willson’s respect for his antagonist grows – and, once the chase reaches its bloody denouement, Willson makes sure to save the African’s child. This is the boy who grows up to become the first Caliban and, through chapters narrated by various members of the Willson family, we look back over the linked history of these two lines. Significantly, Kelley uses only white narrators, who are all keen to offer us their ideas and assumptions about the African-American exodus, without ever really being able to understand it. Even the youngest Willsons, Dewey and Dymphna, are too self-absorbed to really get what has happened to Tucker Caliban, someone they’ve always considered a friend. The only one who comes close to truly understanding it all is their father, David, who has spent long years chastising himself for not having the courage to make a stand for what he believes. Now, as the world changes around him, he may have a chance to redeem himself at last.

Kelley was only 24 when he wrote A Different Drummer but it deals with themes that you don’t necessarily expect to find in a young man’s book: nostalgia; loss; futility; the frustration of looking back on life and realising that you didn’t turn out the person you meant to be. And there’s anger too. Kelley himself wasn’t a southerner – he was born in New York City and studied at Harvard – but he was profoundly engaged with the civil rights movement (indeed, he’s been credited with coining the word ‘woke’). His story is exquisitely balanced, offering dignity and agency and goodness to both black and white characters, and nodding towards the fact that some white people in the South were trying to make it a better place. He explores the way that the lives of Calibans and Willsons have become deeply entwined, shading into friendship and respect even though outward observances remain much the same. And he shows us Harry Leland trying to teach his son to be a good man: to give others respect no matter the colour of their skin, in the belief that one day the world will change for the better. But he also shows us the people whom progress has left behind: the blinkered, the blind and the brutal, embodied by that little knot of lazy, time-wasting men on the porch at Thomason’s, who consider themselves lords of creation simply because they’ve been born white.

I came to this book without knowing anything about its background, or about Kelley himself, and it took me a while to adjust to it. Kelley doesn’t make things explicit: he fills in part of a story but might then add to its significance later. Even at the end, at its most fulsome, the story has gaps. And in some ways it feels metaphoric rather than literal – a feeling enhanced by the fact that it takes place in a fictional town, in a fictional unnamed state, a kind of southern ‘everyplace’. The language, of course, is of its time, which means it can make for uncomfortable reading nowadays, and there’s one particularly brutal scene which is very hard to read. But Kelley was writing this for precisely that reason – to shock, and to remind his readers that outdated attitudes were still widespread in certain parts of the country. And yet he offers hope: the exodus shows us a community of people who have decided to take a stand for themselves, to write their own destinies and to move on from a place that doesn’t offer them the dignity they deserve. The muted flow of people leaving town makes for a powerful, almost epic image – and Kelley invites us to ponder not only what has made them leave, but what will be left when they’ve gone.

Told with urgency and compassion, this story has already become a phenomenon – it’s being hailed as the new Stoker – and I’m glad to have read it, even though I feel I’ll have to read it again to thoroughly delve into all the meaning. It’s got me thinking about a period that really wasn’t so very long ago, even though it feels desperately foreign, and of which I know shamefully little. Above all, it’s very readable. Kelley writes very simply about powerful ideas, as befits someone who went on to become a teacher, and he challenges us to think about how one can truly become free, not just in body or in legal status, but in mind and soul. A troubling window on a (thankfully) lost age, albeit one whose shackles we’re all still shaking off today.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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