Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: Tuscaloosans Past and Present Should Pick This Up

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: Tuscaloosans Past and Present Should Pick This Up

Article excerpt

A novel called "Leaving Tuscaloosa" is simply irresistible to a resident, past or present, of Tuscaloosa. Bennett, who grew up in Tuscaloosa and has had a long career as a lawyer, law professor and judge, now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has studied fiction writing with Lee Smith, among others.

He begins the novel, his first, with a map of Tuscaloosa so the reader can follow the action, from University Boulevard (which he calls Main Street) to 15th Street, to Hackberry to Queen City. Some action takes place in what he calls the Red Elephant restaurant on 10th Avenue -- not yet Paul W. Bryant Boulevard --which was The Corner. Kids neck in the cemetery down the street. The railroad tracks play a large part, and the black section of town, called Cherrytown, south across the tracks, is the center of the action.

Throughout the long hot days and nights of this novel the local paper mill fills the town with its "pulpy smell" like "the breath of a disease." This intensifies the general feeling of suffocation and decay.

Set in 1962, this is a race novel, and a lot of what happens and the characters who perform the actions seem, at least at first, familiar, from the evening news and many Southern novels.

"Leaving Tuscaloosa" is a cut above the average, however. As the story progresses, the reader is drawn in by a large cast of mostly damaged characters who become increasingly complicated and interesting, and the novel moves from predictable to something like inevitable, from events that are disturbing and violent to a climax that approaches the tragic.

For a first novel this is a real accomplishment.

The action begins with a carload of bored white boys on a Friday night, driving around and drinking beer and up to no good. Their stupid prank, throwing an egg at a black preacher walking along the road, turns catastrophic. The preacher dies of a heart attack.

The teen who threw the egg, a high school pitching ace, Richeboux Branscomb, called Bo, is not an evil, racist kid. He is himself depressed, lives with his depressed, unhappy mother and his violent stepfather while his shallow, materialistic, remarried father -- who left after Bo's sister Leigh died of leukemia -- pursues further wealth developing a golf course and housing development just across the Black Warrior River in Northport. …

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