In this meticulously researched and exquisitely deconstructed narrative, novelist and historian Stephen O’Connor views the life and work of the great American architect of personal liberty through the prism of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he considered his rightful possession. This paradox strikes at the heart of our national identity, and while he doesn’t make it make sense, O’Connor does manage to define it in a way that seems plausible, empathetic, and almost but not quite complete.
The author fractures his story into a spectrum of different tales intertwined. A third person limited telling of the facts as we know them from the point of view of an intelligently-imagined Jefferson and a first person confession of identity and shame from Hemings are familiar devices of historical fiction done well. But what about the Jefferson who’s sitting in a contemporary movie theater with Dolly and James Madison, being driven mad by a lushly romantic biopic of his life and love for Sally? Or the Jefferson-like prisoner being tortured by a furious black female guard? Or the New York Jefferson on the subway pining for the Sally who’s ignoring him across the way? Or, strangest of all, the nameless narrator exploring a weird hellscape that seems to be the inside of a colossal Jefferson–the haunted house of the great man’s reputation? He finds another Jefferson and another Hemings here, two survivors of some unnamed apocalypse, clinging and traveling together.
I love this stuff–my favorite work in grad school was on the fractured narratives of writers like A.S. Byatt and Thomas Pynchon, and I’d rank this novel with the best of that style. It gets at a truth of Jefferson and, less successfully, of Hemings that no straightforward telling could.
But is it enough? As a work of literary art, I found this book really satisfying. As a story about people, not so much. O’Connor doesn’t solve the puzzle of Jefferson; that he can’t is kind of the point. But he does a great job of finding all the pieces.
News of the World is one of those short novels written by a poet where every image and syllable is rife with meaning and symbolic import. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story of 72-year-old Captain Jefferson Kidd, an old soldier and former owner of a printing press who makes his living reading newspapers aloud in public, and how he transports a ten-year-old white girl who has spent the past four years as a captive of the Kiowa more than seven hundred miles to her surviving white relatives. (If you’re thinking The Searchers, quit—this is more of a late-in-life Paul Newman role with a well-crafted political point of view that’s all the way 2016.) Incidents ensue that all feel true to life, and the conclusion satisfies. But as much as I love westerns and liberal politics and stories about old men and the power of words, I can’t say I loved this. I liked it okay; I admire Jilles’ research and craftsmanship; I agree with all her points. But the story just didn’t move me.
I suspect Jilles’ is a cracking fine poet. There is much here about things being biscuit-colored and the emotional states of rivers. The character of Kidd is a work of art all by himself, specific and original and full of interesting, relatable depths. His biography, delivered in dribs and drabs of memory and flashback, was my favorite part of the book by miles. But this particular journey and the child for whom he takes it just didn’t interest me all that much. In her author’s note, Jilles’ cites a non-fiction book about the psychology of non-Native-American children taken captive by tribes in the Old West, and I don’t doubt that she read it cover to cover, along with plenty of solid primary sources on the Kiowa language, period clothing, the roads in Texas at the time, and late-19th-century printing. And Texas politics—I’m sure there were even more artful parallels drawn between the violent and clueless white folks she creates for her story and the real ones we know today than I recognized, but I don’t have the strength, will, or energy to try to pull them out. All of this stuff is interesting, but the story feels too thin and tenuous to support its weight. I didn’t have any problem finishing the book, but I just couldn’t care about it much; it never engaged my heart. Ultimately it felt more like an essay or a non-fiction article than a novel.
I’m glad I read it, and I will read more from this writer. But I can’t imagine myself ever reading this one again.