Hardy Plumbing
April 05, 2006

Between The Covers

Though a publishers' note indicates that Robert Wintner once lived in the South Carolina Lowcountry, "where he worked as a shrimper, fisherman, journalist and magazine editor," it's hard to believe that he didn't live there all his life like his caustic and shrewdly observant narrator, Arthur Covingdale, tending to real estate and maritime law and enjoying the perks of being a multi-generation Charleston blue-blood. But as the story begins, in 1968, Arthur is also confronting his past, which includes a cross burning and brick throwing incident he participated in 15 years earlier, an act as inexplicable to him as it was ugly. It went against his own values and was committed against his good friend and revered mentor, Charleston Federal Judge Waties Waring. One of the surprises of the book — among several — is to learn that Waring, whom the author knew, was a man of limited but significant fame in his day: a solidly entrenched Southern aristocrat, whose 1952 finding in Briggs v. Elliot that "separate but equal is not equal," two years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against segregation in Brown v.The Board of Education. The case obviously caught Wintner's eye but in a more complicated way than readers at first imagine.

The opening scene of In a Sweet Magnolia Time takes place at the start of burial ceremonies for Waring in decaying Magnolia Cemetery in North Charleston, where Waring will be the only white to have had a "colored funeral" there "in a century and a half and forty thousand graves." Arthur, or "Mist Aht," as a black pallbearer refers to him, though uninvited, is in attendance. It is Arthur's fumbling but admirable attempts to know and redeem himself as well as to understand the legacy of what John C. Calhoun popularized as the "peculiar institution" that propel Winner's evocative Southern tale. Slavery was indeed "peculiar" — special and pecuniary — and never more so than in South Carolina, where The Civil War began (a term Southerners don't use, as Wintner well knows, preferring The Great Pandemonium or The Great Misfortune). Charleston, as Arthur muses, is still a fossil; "time is the Southern glacier. Whatever changes here is first considered a hundred years. Then the little town grumbles forward reluctantly, its ancient lunacies crumbling to the sea. Then with considerable ballyhoo, we are revealed and reveled anew for adapting yet again to modern times. Don't we?" Arthur, knows the answer: "Charleston remained engaged in futility, striving for more, even if only more chitchat over things that wouldn't change because nobody wanted them to, not then, not now, not ever . . . What isn't 17 [th century] this or 18 that is either English or embarrassing. Time is frozen there, on display."

For 58-year-old Arthur to acknowledge this fact and probe his motives for attacking Judge Waring's home becomes a moral and psychological imperative. (Only at the end does the reader learn just when Arthur's recollections have begun.) Driven out of South Carolina as much for leaving his long-time Southern wife for a Yankee hotblood, Waties Waring settled in New York, though he was never at home there. His exodus at the time proved particularly shocking to Arthur, an-up-and-coming favorite son with a federal court appointment likely in the works. It is Arthur's wrestling with his foiled ambition and subsequent reassessment of values, particularly as these are refined by his growing friendship with an old rural black with the odd name of Jim Cohen, and his niece, that provides Wintner with his theme of crime, punishment and redemption. If literary allusions come to mind (Dostoevsky, Conrad, Joyce, James), it's no accident. Arthur's stream of consciousness also recalls Faulkner's educated, burnt out, educated cases, though the novel resonates distinctively with Wintner's own ear-perfect dialogue, recreating in knotty, complicated Faulknerian style, the speech of both blacks and whites. Rarely has dialect worked so well in fiction about the Deep South, ironically proving the bond between the races. And just as seldom has the "beauty abounding" of the South Carolina flatland marshes been delivered with such graceful prose.

In a Sweet Magnolia Time is quite a performance: compelling, surprising, humorous, poignant. If some questions are not fully resolved it's because the divorced, recovering alcoholic narrator, to his own surprise, comes to honor the dictates of his heart more than the still convenient prejudices of his culture. Sweet magnolia time is bittersweet and all the more humane because of it.

In a Sweet Magnolia Time by Robert Wintner. The Permanent Press, 268 pp., $26.

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