By: Ravi Howard
Reviewed by: Todd Dills
Roy Deacon is turning forty, and the weather’s perfect for a jubilee. On a beach on Mobile Bay’s eastern side, he waits for the stunned sea creatures to arrive, tools in hand to snare the beasts and bide the time—chief among them a fifth of Crown Royal from which he pours a swallow into the sand to commemorate all those who’ve come before him, those who couldn’t be here this fine night.
Thus begins this backward-looking journey through Roy’s last year of high school that is Ravi Howard’s first novel. The book is an effective exploration of a group effort to right the wrongs of its past marred only by an occasionally clunky overuse of the perfect tense that bogs down the narrative in spots.
Roy’s brother Paul finds former fellow Murphy High School classmate Michael Donald strung up in a tree on Herndon Avenue in Mobile in Roy’s last year of high school. The linchpin of the narrative, the event at once unifies the Deacons’ placid community in a desire for justice and highlights the divisions between the Deacon brothers. Paul eschews the family funeral home as a place for business, working his way through college at South Alabama in a pulp-and-paper plant while Roy struggles to balance dedication to family and his own desires for a wider net in life. He’s headed off to college in New Orleans in the fall to start anew—his girlfriend Lorraine to Memphis. Paul soon takes up as an apprentice with local activist attorney Sonny Watters, Lorraine’s father, and Roy simply tries to get on in the here and now by coming to terms with the unanswerable nature of many of life’s big questions—the reality of the afterlife chief among them—made ever more urgent by the nature of his work as a mortician.
What drives the plot, however, is a very answerable question—as the search for Michael Donald’s killers drags on, the importance of the Deacon brothers’ relationship is cast in visceral clarity for the teller of the tale, Roy, and a tragedy lurks on the horizon.
Howard stays true to history in this roman à clef of sorts. Donald’s murder is solved, the killers are brought to justice over years and the fading legacy of community togetherness among black Alabamians is highlighted.
Birmingham resident Todd Dills is the author of Sons of the Rapture and editor of THE2NDHAND, Chicago and Birmingham-based broadsheet and online home for new writing.