Dickens for the Civil Rights–Era South: On Joseph Allen Boone’s “Furnace Creek”
By Suzanne KeenSeptember 30, 2022
Furnace Creek by Joseph Allen Boone
A cardinal rule of novel-reviewing is to avoid plot spoilers. Respecting that convention in this case could demand contortions on the part of the reviewer since any reader of Great Expectations will have a rough idea of how Boone’s narrative will unfold. Furnace Creek deserves many such readers, who will enjoy both the familiar contours of the plot and the changes Boone brings to his Victorian materials. Reseen through the lenses of the 1960s and ’70s, with scenes set in the rural American South, in several of New England’s venerable educational institutions (or their stand-ins), and, as the mystery accelerates, in old Europe, Furnace Creek also invites readers who are drawn to a novel of love, self-discovery, justice-seeking, and adventure. Readers who have never dipped into Dickens don’t need CliffsNotes to enjoy Furnace Creek, because it’s far more than a retelling.
The upheavals of the era, including the struggle for racial justice, the Vietnam War, class stratification and inequality, and women’s rights and gay rights, provide the backdrop for Newt’s story, told in his own voice. One of the pleasures of the novel is Boone’s spot-on descriptions and pitch-perfect mimicry of the look, feel, and sound of the settings — from rural Virginia to a northern prep school, from Harvard to Rome and Paris (remember Europe on $10 a Day?). Boone has a gift for the crystallizing detail, rich with significance, and he deploys it when he sets scenes and describes his characters’ clothing and speech patterns. I laughed out loud at the name of Newt’s little brother: Jubal! Civil War buffs will recognize the sardonic homage to a Virginian Confederate general, Jubal Early, whose losses in the Shenandoah Valley campaign contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy. Southerners of the era Boone depicts did unironically celebrate the biggest losers. In rural southern Virginia as late as the 1990s, I was teaching young white men named for heroes of the Lost Cause: Braxton, Jackson, Lee, Zebulon.
The author had a lot of fun with the names. Consider the Black butler George Geronimo Washington, whose resistance-fighting Apache middle name disrupts the slaveowner’s label. The butler’s son, Samson, claims a different source for the family surname: Booker T. Washington. Subversion and subservience tussle for dominance as George Geronimo totes his employer around his grand estate, serves as audience for his monologues, defends him against detractors, and suffers a steady stream of petulant critiques. The master of the manse, the Miss Havisham of the story, is Julian Armistead Brewster III. “Armistead” alludes to the author of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin, and also to Lewis Armistead, the Confederate brigadier general who led his brigade to the high-water mark of the Confederacy during Pickett’s Charge. The elderly bachelor, the last remaining heir of the furniture-factory family in Newt’s hometown, is an arch manipulator whose patronage sets Newt’s story in motion, linking him to the seductive siblings Mary Jo and Marky, Brewster’s orphaned niece and nephew.
The set-piece description of Brewster conveys both the rich allusiveness and the deft deployment of details in Boone’s prose:
By every account old Julian Brewster was an odd bird, though no more eccentric than the living waxworks that populated every Southern backwater hamlet in 1967: a patrician bachelor counting sixty-odd years who remained defiantly out of step with the times, a practitioner of the Catholic faith (as near as heresy as you could get in Rocky Hill), a fastidious dresser never seen in public except in the dapper whites, linen jacket, bow-tie, and fedora befitting Joel Chandler Harris’s tales of plantation life. These days, he was more memory than dandy about town, infrequently spotted tottering across the grounds of his vast, unkempt property or shouting gentrified obscenities at the neighborhood boys who snuck over its walls to steal Muscat grapes from its once legendary arbor.
This key figure will give Newt a job, initiate his social and aesthetic education, thrust him into the society of Mary Jo and Marky, and tantalize the bookish scholar with a mysterious past that animates a romance of the archive within the novel.
Boone’s uproarious plot swings into action with an unforgettable opening scene, in which Zithra Jackson Brown, an escaped Black convict and the next-door neighbor’s former hired help, interrupts 13-year-old Newt mid-ejaculation at his hideout, the eponymous Furnace Creek. She knows exactly who he is. Terrified and ashamed, Newt capitulates to the convict’s larcenous instructions and returns with cash, a black ledger belonging to the corrupt judge who lives next door, and a bottle of fuchsia nail varnish (Newt’s impulsive addition). Readers of Great Expectations will appreciate the adroit revision of the arresting opening of Pip’s story, complete with a convict, a demand, and a fearful compliance. The faithfulness to Dickens’s original at the start sets up an expectation that the rest of the story will sustain an allusive parallel, and it does, but not at the expense of delivering a satisfyingly original reading experience. You don’t need to know the Dickens novel to appreciate and enjoy Furnace Creek, but it does add a layer. Boone meaningfully transposes Dickens’s plot to the postwar South, creating with empathy and verve new versions of Pip, Magwitch, Estella, and Miss Havisham — and the iconic characters will never be quite the same again!
Newt’s acute and (crucially) imperceptive observations foreground his experiences and moral growth. His emotional and libidinal nature, and his confusion about matters material and erotic, ground a rich comedy that is simultaneously droll and poignant. Though Furnace Creek engages the social, political, and ethical dilemmas of its historical setting, it is no dreary exercise in social-studies narration. The social and political world is undeniably present, exerting its pressure in urgent ways: uh oh, here comes the Vietnam War. Equally powerful is the shaping influence of the various generic registers Boone deploys. In addition to the love travails and Wanderjahr of the bildungsroman tradition, the novel’s plot is interwoven with strands of mystery fiction, archival romance, and race-and-chase adventure. These elements look backwards to the Victorian tradition that provides the matrix for a 20th-century story.
Dickens may have been known as “the Inimitable,” but that hasn’t stopped contemporary novelists from giving it a try. Joseph Boone joins a company of celebrated contemporary writers who have revisited Dickens’s stories, characters, and life experiences, mining them for material. Among the most distinguished afterlives of the author are Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997), Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip (2006), and V. S. Naipaul’s acclaimed A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), in each of which Dickens’s fiction serves as a resonant intertext. The list expands exponentially when we consider the many novelists who have earned the sobriquet “Dickensian,” sometimes for their melodrama and 19th-century fictional worlds (Sarah Waters, Susanna Clarke); sometimes for their multiplot narratives and zesty satirical prose (Vikram Chandra, Marlon James, Rohinton Mistry, Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith); and sometimes for the way they blend long-form seriality with social satire, critiques of capitalism, and over-the-top grotesquerie (as in the later seasons of The Wire).
Very few of the adapters stay as close to the original storyline of their inspiration as Furnace Creek does: it’s a risk that could make the new work seem merely gimmicky. Yet Boone’s novel excels precisely due to its faithfulness to the spirit of Dickens’s storytelling, in which excoriating satire jostles with empathetic representations. Boone revivifies the satirical spirit of Dickens in his humorous send-ups of the recognizable social types that populate Newt’s world. But he also contrives to build a story — complete with inheritance plot, crimes, secrets, and revelations — in which his revised versions of Dickens’s characters get more satisfying, just, and compassionate outcomes than their originals. Never fear — there are ample servings of comeuppance, and the tale wouldn’t be Dickensian without a robust lashing of pathos. Boone invests in his central characters’ obsessions, preoccupations, failings, and aspirations, lighting them from within with the glow of humanity.
For decades, first as a professor of English at Harvard and later at the University of Southern California, Joseph Allen Boone has built a reputation as a master teacher and cutting-edge scholar in the field of the novel. Author of Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction (1987), Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism (1998), and The Homoerotics of Orientalism (2014), and co-editor of two collections of essays, Boone has previously translated his expertise in 19th-century fiction into creative work, writing the libretto for an operatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857). After an immensely successful career as a literary-cultural critic, this resident of Los Angeles now emerges as a compelling storyteller in his own right.
Suzanne Keen’s most recent publication is a collection of her essays, Empathy and Reading: Affect, Impact, and the Co-Creating Reader (Routledge, 2022). She serves as president of Scripps College in Claremont, California.
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