Clock without Hands by Carson McCullers
Reads like this:
‘You must take the word “reactionary” literally these days. A reactionary is a citizen who reacts when the age-long standards of the South are threatened. When States’ rights are trampled on by the Federal Government, then the Southern patriot is duty-bound to react. Otherwise the noble standards of the South will be betrayed.’
‘What noble standards?’ Jester asked.
‘Why boy, use your head. The noble standards of our way of life, the traditional institutions of the South.’
Jester did not say anything but his eyes were sceptical and the old Judge, sensitive to all his grandson’s reactions, noticed this.
‘The Federal Government is trying to question the legality of the Democratic Primary so that the whole balance of Southern civilization will be jeopardized.’
Jester asked, ‘How?’
‘Why, boy, I’m referring to segregation itself.’
‘Why are you always harping on segregation?’
‘Why, Jester, you’re joking.’
Jester was suddenly serious. ‘No, I’m not.’
The Judge was baffled. ‘The time may come in your generation – I hope I won’t be here – when the educational system itself is mixed – with no colour line. How would you like that?’
Jester did not answer.
‘How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?’
The Judge could not believe in the possibility of this; he wanted to shock Jester to the gravity of the situation. His eyes challenged his grandson to react in the spirit of Southern gentlemen.
‘How about a hulking white girl sharing a desk with a delicate little Negro boy?’
Jester did not repeat his words, nor did the old Judge want to hear again the words that so alarmed him. It was as though his grandson had committed some act of incipient lunacy, and it is fearful to acknowledge the approach of madness in a beloved. It is so fearful that the old Judge preferred to distrust his own hearing, although the sound of Jester’s voice still throbbed against his eardrums. He tried to twist the words to his own reason.
‘You’re right, Lambones, whenever I read such communist ideas I realize how unthinkable the notions are. Certain things are just too preposterous to consider.’
The novel was first published in 1961 and, like McCullers’ previous work, is concerned with man’s spiritual isolation, his loneliness. But it is set in a small Georgian town at a time when the struggles of the civil rights movement were coming to fruition, and when the old south is stubornly refusing to believe that an ancient and cherished lifestyle is fated to end for ever.
Part of the narrative is seen through the eyes of JT Malone, a local pharmacist who is dying of leukemia. We watch him in denial of his disease, he changes doctors and refuses to face the reality, and eventually spends much of his time with the old Judge who tells him what he wants to hear. Meanwhile, the Judge has hired a young black man as his amanuensis, an engaging and intelligent youth, to help him fight the Federal government and gain reparations for the South.
McCullers, of course, is reminiscent of Faulkner, and her landscapes are drenched in memory and longing, but Clock Without Hands made me think more of Tennessee Williams in its depiction of how past traumatic and familial events often lead to grotesque results in seemingly normal citizens.
McCullers hand, however, seems to have less compassion than her contemporaries as she observes her characters’ inability to fully live their lives and an awareness of love which is riddled with flaws. Clock Without Hands is a thoughtful and poetic novel of race, class, and justice.