Vulcan Presides: Anne Whitehouse on Charles Entrekin’s Red Mountain Birmingham Alabama 1965


red-mountain

Red Mountain, Birmingham, Alabama, 1965, Charles Entrekin, El León Literary Arts 2008

Charles Entrekin’s Red Mountain, Birmingham, Alabama, 1965 is a portrait of the artist as a young man, and the story of a doomed group of friends coming of age in the repressive South of the 1950s and 1960s. Here children were raised by the precept, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything,” as hypocrisy and violence thrived under the unsaid. The narrator, Eddie Andersen, is retrospectively piecing together his past in an attempt at understanding his failed marriage and its tragic outcome.

The product of an abusive family, Eddie has sublimated his feelings to his intellect and channeled his energies into acquiring an education. His own parents married as teenagers and never saw the need to complete high school. His father, a touchy, uneducated, violent white bigot—the stereotype of a Southern redneck—openly opposes Eddie’s dedication to his studies, and his mother, chronically ill, has no strength to spare to defend her son’s ambitions. Eddie is willing to remain in a sexually unsatisfying relationship because of his emotional and spiritual connections to his wife, Chrissy, whom he met in high school.

If not for Chrissy’s strong will and support, Eddie would not have summoned the strength of will to oppose his family. The two marry at twenty because their families, society, and religion expect it. What fuels their marriage is the need to escape from their unhappy homes.

If Red Mountain in whose dark shadow Eddie has spent his formative years with its hellish underground furnaces exhaling greasy black coal dust represents the nadir, then the aptly named Crestview College with its classical white buildings and green lawns stands in bold contrast. Crestview College stands as an Arcadia of learning where a group of gifted students befriend and encourage each other in an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry that inspires some of their professors and threatens others. Entrekin’s depictions of Chrissy and her Crestview College circle of friends–Doug, Tim, Anita, Sarah, and Allan–are vivid and memorable.

Like the group of young intellectuals in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Eddie and Chrissy and their friends make up a club of brilliant bohemians. Fearlessly they take the lead in their classes, educating each other and transforming themselves in the process. Also, as in Tartt’s novel, the narrator makes a discovery about his friends’ transgressive desires—desires that exclude him—only after the tragic death of one of their members, resulting from a drunken bacchanal, has doomed the friendship circle. It’s a suggestive and powerful story, and it’s the strength of this novel as well as The Secret History.

From early on, it’s obvious to the reader that Chrissy is a lesbian, but Eddie remains clueless until he can no longer avoid the truth. To solve the problem of a narrator who is oblivious to his wife’s true nature, Entrekin intersperses the narrative with illuminating selections from Chrissy’s diary—“a notebook of poetic fragments and thoughts which I [Eddie] discovered years later.”

After the disastrous honeymoon, Chrissy records in her diary a medically sanctioned rape. “Saw Dr. Adams today. I bled for over four hours afterwards. He broke my hymen. Forced his way into me with his cold hands. He said, ‘Now go home, honey. Show that husband of yours you know how to make him a happy man.’ It hurt.” (p.31)

While Eddie continues to hope for fulfillment in this marriage without knowing how to achieve it, Chrissy’s journal entries emphasize her forbidden longings and secret pleasures. She conceives a great passion for her former roommate Anita, but Anita rejects her. Chrissy’s marriage to Eddie and the birth of their daughter represent her attempts to escape into “normalcy.” Yet she chooses time and again to betray Eddie rather than herself, although she ultimately remains unfulfilled, falling prey to despair and to her terrible sense of solitude, pain, and isolation.

“It is a stark and frightening fact that nobody but me knows what it is to be me,” she writes in one of her last journal entries in the novel. “The bright lights that have exploded in my head and the heavy hurt that I carry in my breast—they’re mine. They belong to my aloneness, to that dreadful, awesome sense of myself, to that thing I cannot give away and can’t really even share.” (pp.252-53)

In keeping with the Existentialist philosophy that permeates the novel, Chrissy is seen as a victim of her situation who can only break out of the bonds of her existence through death. In her suicide note to her husband, “Je suis non-recouvrable. (I am not recoverable),” Eddie recognizes the quote from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Main Sales (Dirty Hands) “about a freedom fighter who cannot deny the choices he’s made and acted upon which have all gone wrong, who knows he’s doomed, ruined, and unsalvageable.” (p.274)

Atop Red Mountain presides the statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, Birmingham’s official symbol, erected by the local titans of industry. Entrekin suggests that they were undoubtedly ignorant of Vulcan’s other significance as “the Roman god of cuckolds,” and “also a lame god who, according to the Gnostics, was a forbear of the Christian concept of the devil.” (p.4)

Entrekin’s self-conscious use of Vulcan as an ambivalent symbol has an obvious coherence to it, but it’s overdone to the point of being heavy-handed. As Flannery O’Connor famously said of the Holy Ghost, “If it’s only a symbol, then to hell with it.”
Other quibbles have to do with Entrekin’s introduction into his novel of characters based on actual individuals without changing their names or facts about them. According to the Author’s note: “The characters in this book, their motivations, and their interactions are the work of my imagination, though the historical events in this book did, in fact, take place.”

During his student years in Birmingham, Eddie works in a bookstore and at the public library. For the record, I note here that I lived in Birmingham in the period of the novel, and I knew the bookstore owners to whom he refers. They weren’t public figures, like the notorious Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, for instance, who turned firehoses and police dogs on the peaceful demonstrators. The bookstore proprietors were private and proud individuals, and I confess I felt queasy when I came upon their names and identities imported directly into this novel. At the least, it seems not in good taste, not in the taste they would have appreciated. I guess that’s the point. I also recognized the name of another bookstore owner of the time, and I suspect that other individuals as well are imported into this novel as characters. Since the author is legally Charles E. Entrekin, Jr., and the narrator’s father is referred to as Charlie and the narrator is Eddie, I wonder about the name question even with the main characters.

Putting aside legal issues that could arise, I don’t think this is a good policy for authors to ascribe to. Better to change the names of actual people who are models for the characters. In the same vein, the story has a “wannabe memoir” quality that makes it appear stitched together at times, like a patchwork quilt, and prevents it from being as satisfying as it could be. It’s trying for too much, when less would be more.

The novel struggles to connect to the civil rights movement, but the connection feels forced. The chapter epigraphs from Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of that era in Birmingham, and from other writings, histories, and memoirs of the period seem to serve little poetic or narrative purpose other than to suggest a frame or backdrop to the story.

When the story does connect directly to the civil rights movement, it’s the result of a coincidence, as when Eddie, on an errand for the bookstore, comes by chance on a demonstration. The author signals to the reader that this juxtaposition is coming by his use of the exact date, May 2, 1963, when no other dates are related so precisely. The demonstration and its repression represent an episode that happens outside of the story, as if the author felt he somehow had to include it, for the sake of history.

For the most part Eddie remains outside of the civil rights struggles of his youth. While he and Chrissy deplore the overt racism of their parents, they nevertheless discover that they also have to overcome their own racial stereotypes; for example, Eddie’s surprise, late in the novel, when he discovers that Chrissy’s New York City doctor is black. For me, the novel’s most illuminating racial perception, one that does not feel forced, is Eddie’s feeling of freedom and relief when he observes an interracial couple at a bar in Times Square without anyone bothering them.

There are other memorable moments in the novel as well that ring with the authenticity of observed experience. Entrekin convincingly conveys Birmingham’s atmosphere of repression and violence in this period. Entrekin chooses to open out the narrative at the book’s conclusion, as at last Eddie embraces the goals of the civil rights movement by becoming the first white male Head Start teacher in Alabama. It’s a suggestive ending that seems to anticipate a second volume.

*

Anne Whitehouse was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and is a member of the Alabama Writers Forum. Her feature on the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Her reviews of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in major publications throughout the US. She is the author of The Surveyor’s Hand (poems) and Fall Love (novel), which is available as a free download from http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/1900. Poems from her collection Blessings and Curses have appeared widely in literary journals; her second novel Rosalind’s Ring is set in Birmingham. Her home state has recognized her with the Hackney Literary Awards in poetry and fiction and the Black Warrior Review poetry award. www.annewhitehouse.com

2 responses to “Vulcan Presides: Anne Whitehouse on Charles Entrekin’s Red Mountain Birmingham Alabama 1965

  1. Good review, and yet it didn’t quite capture the quality of tension, all through the novel, of young people far out on a limb of ignorance and heedlessness, trying to make sense of the world and their lives, trying to love, struggling with cascades of hormones — in a society that was changing…not fast enough, or perhaps it was too fast? Anyway, the book is a page turner.

  2. Well written review and insightful in raising numerous
    questions that exist in that theshold space where
    cultural journalism and fiction flow into the same
    headwater. The book sounds all the more fascinating
    for its ragged edges. Paul Pines