BOOK REVIEW / A sleeping giant in search of new shoes: 'Praying for Sheetrock' - Melissa Fay Greene: Secker & Warburg, 9.99

In June 1971, before the new Interstate-95 motorway was built, two trucks collided on the old Highway 17 where the traffic used to slam down through the coastal saltmarsh and pine-woods of McIntosh county, South Georgia, on its way to Florida.

One truck was full of shoes, and sheriff Tom Poppell benignly allowed the black people who had gathered silently around the smoking wreck to help themselves to box after box of good leather shoes, red, black and green shoes they could never have afforded by themselves, all wrapped in tissue paper.

'All day long under a sky like white coals,' writes Melissa Fay Greene, 'the High Sheriff stood spread-legged on the highway, directing traffic; the road crews swept and shovelled; and hundreds of local families quietly harvested shoes.' They thanked Sheriff Poppell for this licenced larceny, and the Sheriff, with a silent gesture of one hand, acknowledged their tribute.

It is with this telling image of the old South - a mixture of feudal power, poverty and lawlessness, still surviving seven years after the second great emancipation of 1964 - that Greene opens this masterly book. It is as tender and powerful as a great Russian novel, yet written in a style that sets the casual rhythms of contemporary speech against the vast, timeless landscape of coastal Georgia, 'one of Earth's rare moist and sunny places where life loves to experiment. Because it is flushed out twice a day by the systole of saltwater tide and diastole of alluvial tide, the marsh looks new, as if still wet from creation'.

Nature in south Georgia may love to experiment. The same has not been true of its white inhabitants since they arrived from the Scottish Highlands in the early 18th century and began to import slaves to cut down the timber for them, tap the turpentine and fish the shrimps off this steaming coast. By the 1970s, little had changed since slavery times.

When Sheriff Tom Poppell succeeded his father in 1948 and long after pine, turps and shrimping had given place, for the few thousand white inhabitants of the county, to the great new industry; fleecing the Yankee tourists. With sly cunning and prodigious imagination, they dreamed up new ways, or rather new variations on time-honoured ways, of prising dollars from the occupants of the shining river of trucks and sedans, Cadillacs and Chevvies, that poured through Darien, Georgia, hellbound for Miami. Some offered free come-on rolls at gambling games where seemingly naive yokels fixed the odds against a tourist winning at 1,700,000 to one. Others ran joints like the SS Truck Stop where, if you asked the scantily-clad waitress for a hamburger, she would come back to you, 'Honey, the only thing you gon' get here costs thirty-five dollars, and you get it in the back room'.

Sheriff Poppell kept control in McIntosh not with the whip and the gun, like the beer-gutted sheriffs of cliche, but by country cunning. He grew rich with the skim from robberies, illegal gambling, prostitution and narcotics, and there were dark stories of backwoods murder where his will was flouted. He courted the black vote with geniality and with shrewdly distributed favours. Unlike other white sheriffs, he made sure that every last black voted, and that they voted for him. Sheriff Tom, in fact, was one of the last unchallenged bosses in the South. Until, that is, the black community, the 'sleeping giant' as the white folks called it, Kraken-like awoke.

Melissa Fay Greene's unsentimental account of the black awakening starts slowly, as if nothing would ever change in McIntosh county. It turns into an authentic South Georgia tragedy. It is the story of how a black man, Thurnell Alston, of little education and great ability, rose from sweaty obscurity to become a county commissioner, not like the stammering old Uncle Toms Sheriff Poppell had patronised, but as the proud champion of a people so poor that when winter came they prayed for sheetrock - toughened plasterboard - to be delivered by the bounty of Highway 17, like Sheriff Poppell's shoes, to keep out the rain.

It was, with the sort of irony that Thomas Hardy would have relished, the highway that began the downslope in Thurnell Alston's life. His son Keith, the apple of his eye, crossed the road to buy sweets for his twin baby brother and sister. His attention wandered, he stepped into the stream of traffic, and was killed instantly. Alston's marriage never recovered. He started to drink, to take bribes, to front for the drug smugglers who had found a new use for the shrimp boats and the quiet coves of the saltmarsh. I will not spoil the magnificent denouement of this non-fiction novel by giving away the specific manner of Thurnell's discomfiture, but the book held me from the first page to the last.

The central narrative accelerates smoothly to a surprise tragicomic resolution. But this is not only the ironic story of a white sheriff and his black supplanter; not even the portrait of the people, half black, half white, of Darien in its endless pine-woods. In prose that is both sharp and elegiac, Melissa Fay Greene catches the pitch of a voice, the simmering heat and the tensions of human contact. But she also catches the essential unity of the human experience of this insidiously beautiful, treacherous land with its history that is both placid and bloodstained.

'Before the whites came, before the blacks, the Indian elderly must have sat, relishing in memory their fine moments, inwardly revelling, just as today, on high, small concrete balconies overlooking the Florida beach, American elderly people sit on foldout aluminium chairs and look to the horizon from their perches, while the ocean wind ruffles their hair.' Few writers as good as this come along in a generation, even in the South, with all the unfair advantage of having the South to write about; and not many of them achieve this high, even purr of controlled power in their very first book.

(Photograph omitted)

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