Matt Osborne is likely the only person who bought Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee, and Dark Days: A Memoir, by Randy Blythe, on the same day. Randy Blythe is frontman for the metal band Lamb of God and spent time several years ago in a Czech prison. Matt reads (and listens to metal) with passion and careful attention. Today, he brings his formidable talents to Go Set A Watchman.
We all have our notions of what constitutes a Great Book. It may be one that we envision giving to our granddaughter on her 14th birthday. Or that we place prominently on the shelf to let visitors know that it is part of who we are. Or for which we not only can recall specific passages, but also where they fell spatially on the page. Or for which we keep an extra copy on hand for loaning, and envy the borrower her opportunity to read it for the first time. Or that we plan to read one final time when the doctor tells us the Reaper is at hand.
Harper Lee’s recently discovered Go Set a Watchman is not such a book, at least not for me. Rather, it is what we knew it to be from the pre-publication media accounts – a rejected first novel that served as a trial run for the venerated, reworked version (To Kill a Mockingbird, of course) that followed.
This is not to say that Watchman lacks strengths and pleasures. It addresses race perhaps more honestly and with more complexity than Mockingbird (though in a “Gee, all this change is tough on white people” way that seems severely limited to modern eyes). Lee’s characterizations of the father, Atticus Finch, are rich, even in their economy (“He was a precise man.” “It is doubtful that he ever sought for meanings.”). Lee is excellent at recounting conversation and describing children at play. She wonderfully evokes a sense of place.
But as happens in the story itself, reading Watchman is a case of “break[ing] your icons.” There is a lack of subtlety, particularly with the comedic set pieces early in the book (which seem forced) and certain of the expository passages. The tone is uneven. There is a sense of the author thrusting words and ideas toward us, rather than letting the text and the reader drift naturally toward one another. It certainly gets better as it goes, but all in all, I cannot say that editor Tay Hohoff was incorrect in asking Lee to try again.
I have avoided reading any reviews, so I don’t know what the professional book-reading types are saying, but the theme of the novel certainly appears to be one of passages and transitions. Before the reader reaches page 50, Lee has referenced trains, planes, cars, boats, and horses; later an abandoned husband hitches a ride in a wagon. There are separations and deaths (one of which comes unexpectedly in the book’s first chapter). There are advances of age and infirmity. There are houses replaced by ice cream parlors, and swimming holes replaced by mills. Church hymns are modernized by Yankees. The last plot of family land is sold to outsiders. There is sexual maturation. There are changing notions of race (the dominant issue of the last two-thirds of the book) and gender mores. The book begins in a train, and ends with an airplane simile and a car ride. So, in this same spirit, I will choose to view the book itself as an interesting, sometimes rewarding, glimpse of an artist in transition.
I suppose much will be made of how the book compares to Mockingbird in tone, theme, and content. I am sure there will be much discussion of the father, Atticus, as he is portrayed in Watchman. I won’t speak to any of those issues here, partly due to my intellectual inadequacy on matters literary, and partly to avoid revealing plot points to those who have not yet read the book.
I will close simply by noting that, as Lee writes in Chapter 1, “If you did not want much, there was plenty.” If you take Watchman for what it is, and do not expect the book that ultimately sprung from it, you will find plenty. But I don’t think you will reach for it when the Reaper comes; there are other books you will clutch to your breast then.
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