|It seems that every year or two a rare literary gem is discovered somewhere in Alabama. Just when we might think we’ve run out of talent, a new find is uncovered to glitter on the horizon for at least a season -- sometimes longer.
Several years ago such a talent appeared with Pat Cunningham Devoto’s first novel, My Last Days as Roy Rogers, shining with originality and exuberance. Now and then, one of these talents expands to greater heights, explodes like a meteor, and expresses itself with a deeper and broader canvas. Now, Pat Cunningham Devoto’s second novel, Out of the Night that Covers Me, begins quietly and grows with tiny sparks like falling stars across Alabama’s Black Belt landscape until it finally shines with an unusual brightness in the reader’s brain.
Out of the north from Bainbridge, Alabama, comes eight-year-old John Gallatin McMillan III who is removed into heart of the Black Belt by his Aunt Nelda after the boy's beloved mother dies. Into a strange and cruel world young John is dumped -- a boy who is smart and well-mannered, reminiscent of Truman Capote’s young hero in Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Writing as smooth as floating on a cloud, Devoto eases her readers into the isolated world of the Black Belt, where Indians once slew hundreds of white settlers, where Scott and Zelda once danced all night long in a plantation house, where black preachers and voodoo folk occupy the mysterious swampland.
Exploring this age-old theme and plot with a deft newness, novelist Devoto probes the characters in the hamlet of Lower Peach Tree and its environs, including Kay’s Bend, where Mama Tuway works her magic. Devoto works her own stylistic magic, seesawing action back and forth between the dysfunctional dogtrot household of Nelda and Luther and their children, Little Luther and Shell (short for Michelle), and the warm comfort -- yet uncertain security -- of Judge and Adell Vance’s town place and the poor little ramshackled unpainted shack deep in the swamp.
As pure as any good Jungian dream, Out of the Night pulls the reader straight ahead into its action. And the action itself flows naturally, moving as the character moves, without false twists and turns, yet with swift surprise. When something happens out of the night of John’s imagination, you find yourself nodding and saying to yourself, “Yeah, that’s right!”
There is beauty and darkness in Ms. Devoto’s drama. It is simple in its language, yet not commonplace, as: “The figure stopped right in the middle of the water and stood silent, the glow of the lantern casting out long shadows all around him. Moss swayed in the trees just above him. He was close, but still offshore, and not saying a word, just standing there, once again a menacing presence. In a split second, their sense of relief had vanished.”
Shrouded in a ghost-like fog, the story unfolds with a careful strength embodied in its Southerness, weighted with the thrill of human struggle, looking ahead for a light in the darkness, seeking a dream that’s as real as a little boy’s hurts and worries and thoughts about tomorrow. Just Huck and Jim were frightened in the immense darkness of the Mississippi, so are John and a black man named Berl scared in the middle of the dark swamp. They believe in the power of the splotch-faced black man named Tuway, who was taken in as a baby by Mama Tuway and who knows the swamp like the back of his hand.
Little John, “a dot on a domino,” grows as a character from a frightened boy to the seeker of a dream. His world expands without pretense or literary interference. Finally, he moves gracefully from one world to another, flexing his muscles and his mind, finding himself educated in the ways of the swamp and the Bend, finding himself with a friend about whom he cares and finding himself being cared for by his new friend.
People work for and against other people. White on white, black on black, white against black; tragedy strikes like lightning across a Black Belt sky. It leaves a scathed landscape, people hurt, and feelings aching. Like the Judge said, sometimes words are like pieces of gold.