OCTOBER 29, 2017
WHAT’S MORE AMERICAN than unresolved racial anxiety bubbling over into violence? To say that the current cultural moment provides no shortage of examples is almost beside the point; that’s always been true and always will be thanks to the racial complexities of the American project. The scale doesn’t necessarily need to be monumental for this to become clear, however; micro-level conflicts can be just as illuminating. Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, for example, takes these unconfronted histories as the setting for a sharp crime story, using them to propel a tight plot forward and create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Set in rural East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is a detective story steeped with history. Locke, who’s received great praise for the novels Pleasantville and Black Water Rising and her work on the TV show Empire, draws upon themes familiar to those who know her previous work to construct a well-structured plot: Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, is called to Lark, a tiny East Texas town that’s just seen two bodies (first a black man, then a white woman) turn up dead in the bayou within the last week. Lark’s the kind of place where everybody’s known everybody else for decades, though this doesn’t imply any kind of fondness. The black folks cluster around Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, the kind of small-town diner where “colored folks [come] from all over just to have a place where they were welcome,” while its white residents congregate at Jeff’s Juice House, an icehouse that counts Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members among its regular clientele. Part of what makes the investigation into the bodies so confusing, though, is the lack of a clear racial narrative: the order of the killings “didn’t fit any agreed-upon American script,” and Lark is so small and closely linked that there’s plenty of ties between the white and black sides of town. Although technically under suspension, Darren quickly becomes subsumed by the case, dealing with a collection of residents with decades of history in the town as he tries to achieve some measure of justice.
The term “tangled web” gets thrown around a lot with these kind of novels, and for a moment I reflexively reached out to type that tired phrase before realizing that doing so would be doing Bluebird a disservice. Locke’s novel deals with such a small cast of characters that astute readers could probably guess who’s involved in the solution to the mystery midway through, but the plot is in no way lessened by not having an out-of-nowhere arrival in the third act. Instead, Locke uses history to add depth in a way that’s all the more compelling for how fundamentally simple it can be. Geneva’s diner and Jeff’s Juice House, the novel’s physical and psychological endpoints, are only a stone’s throw apart on Highway 59, but the scope spans decades; Bluebird’s a quarter-mile long and a century deep.
Learning the full extent of the complicated relationships between characters is the best part of the book — Locke has a wonderful grasp of how to tell a story about the past. The idea of “fully formed” characters often comes hand-in-hand with the fallacy that there’s a hidden side to everyone; witness the way American pop culture loves to find the spark of goodness in every racist. This is obviously bullshit, of course: at best it’s the crutch of bad writers who don’t know any other way to construct a “whole” character and at worst it’s self-aware racist apologia. Not so in Bluebird, which has characters fully formed not in the sense that they have impossibly complex motivations but because they are believable people with actions that make sense considering the history behind them. Geneva Sweet, for example, serves as the lodestone for Lark’s black community because of her roots in the region, and her contentious ties with the wealthy white Jefferson family embroil her in the nastiness of the town’s racial conflict. She and her diner are a thorn in the side of Wally Jefferson, who seems to all but run Lark, but what passes between Geneva and Wally is more than just acrimony: “there was a familiarity there,” Darren observes, “well worn and yet reserved.” Their history, and the story of the rest of the town, is given piecemeal throughout the book, usually via recollections in which a longtime Lark resident gives Darren the low-down. There’s a supreme confidence in these retellings worthy of their role in the narrative — not empty exposition and never filler, these retellings are the story, and Locke’s ear for people makes seeing how the past redoubles and affects the present a constant delight.
With such an emphasis on the past, Darren Mathews plays a sort of dual role within the narrative. “Outsider investigating a crime and learning the history of the small town along the way” is doubtless familiar to anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the genre, but all this is complicated by Darren’s position as a black Texas Ranger. Locke takes care to give the reader an understanding of what that position means in Texas, and for the most part it works — the disconnect between the respect a Ranger deserves and the weariness people have toward a black man in East Texas surfaces repeatedly to add another layer of discomfort and menace to the whole thing. Take for example when a county sheriff briefs Darren for the first time:
“Ranger Mathews,” he said, coming toward Darren but stopping just short of shaking his hand. “I’m gon’ be clear about this from the top. I don’t want you here, and I didn’t ask for you to be here […] “We gon’ do this real nice like. I’m gon’ be cordial and accepting of your presence in my county. But let’s be real clear, this is my deal down here. […] You’re just a prop down here, son, and nothing more.”
It’s emblematic of the tug between Darren’s two identities; when he reminds the sheriff that it’s “Ranger” and not son, the correction comes with a “tense nod.” Darren faces danger, but his fight is largely internal, weighing his identity as a Ranger against his sympathies as a black man. For him, the case is a chance to restore his good name and prove to his wife, who wants him to quit his job and finish up his law degree, that he was meant to be a Ranger.
The moments where Bluebird doesn’t ring true come when Darren faces violence; one showdown where Darren kicks a gun out of a white man’s hand seems transplanted from a different book. It’s not impossible, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel earned in the same way as the other interpersonal violence between the members of Lark. In contrast, Darren’s dealings with his wife or mother have no such ambiguity, and it’s here that Locke’s writing really shines. Take for example this description of Darren calling his wife from the road.
She said his name as a sigh, but it was a sound nearer to relief than exasperation. He heard something click against the phone, then a kiss of quiet, and he knew she’d removed her earring. She was settling in for him, a fact that cracked him wide open. “I miss you,” he said, the words tumbling out of their own accord, like beads that had slipped through his clumsy fingers, scattering everywhere.
The intimacy here works wonders in turning Darren’s as-yet-unseen wife from a figurehead into a character with meaningful weight, thus making the pull between his commitment to duty and his desire to please his wife far more effective than it would be otherwise.
A large part of the book deals with Darren’s attempts to prove something about his character to himself and others, and his history is at the core of his attempts to do so. The answers to why Lark’s residents (and the reader) should grant him any trust to achieve real justice come from the reasons a second-year law student would drop out, forsaking a safe and lucrative career, and join law enforcement. This might not all work as well as the ties that make Lark’s residents do what they do: I never felt Darren was ever in any real danger and maintained that his function was largely to be the conduit through which we learned who did what to make two bodies turn up in the bayou. Bluebird, Bluebird’s ending, however, turns Darren’s privileged position against him. Something rises out of the past to deliver a gut punch in the middle of what was to be a celebratory dinner, all the more effective for how smoothly it looks like Darren has resolved all lingering issues. The danger here’s not from violence but the weight of those aforementioned family ties. By using this as the conduit for her final ending, Locke plays to her strengths by bringing the intergenerational weight that makes Lark so fraught down upon Darren, showing that no one thing is capable of propelling someone clear of generations of black pain — not wealth, not a wife, not a law degree, and not a lawman’s badge.