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The Boston Phoenix Midwestern Gothic

Dale Peck jumps on the maximalist bandwagon with a disturbing novel about racial and sexual violence.

By James Surowiecki

MAY 26, 1998: 

NOW IT'S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE, by Dale Peck. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $25.

We live in the era of the shaggy-dog novel. Where in the 1980s literature, at least in America, was marked by the advent of minimalism and what was disparagingly termed "Kmart realism," the latter half of this decade has brought us a series of expansive novels featuring multilayered stories that are narrated by many different characters and veer back and forth between extremes of violence and comedy. These novels -- David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Denis Johnson's Already Dead, Jane Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton -- seem to owe more to Don Quixote or Dickens than to modernism's insistent focus on the isolated self, or even to the lean game-playing of 1960s-vintage postmodernism. The latest addition to this list is Dale Peck's troubling Now It's Time to Say Goodbye. A Southern Gothic novel set in the Midwest, it excavates a terrain of small-town provincialism, racial divisions, and sexual violence with unexpected savagery.

Now It's Time to Say Goodbye begins with the arrival in a small Kansas town of two gay men from New York. Writer Colin Nieman and his young lover, whom he has christened Justin Time, have fled to the exact center of America in an attempt to escape a world where nearly everyone they know is dying. The relationship between Colin and Justin, with its sexual obsessiveness, its futile attempt to replace the memory of Justin's true love, and its almost casual violence, appears to be the axis upon which the novel will turn. But in fact, that relationship is quickly pushed off-stage. Instead, Peck gives us a story whose real center is the place to which Colin and Justin have come: the twin towns of all-black Galatia and all-white Galatea, the former founded by free blacks in the years before the Civil War and the latter created as an act of pure will by one woman after a nearby town burned to the ground in the 1970s. Galatia and Galatea share an uneasy present and a past haunted by the lynching, just a decade earlier, of a black boy for allegedly assaulting a white girl. When the New Yorkers arrive, their presence catalyzes that past back into life, shattering the façade of coexistence and bringing out of the shadows everything that had been hidden.

That shattering takes the form of a brutal rape and, later, a murder, but it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that the plot details are almost beside the point. To be sure, as the novel nears its climax, it demonstrates considerable narrative verve; in a way, the book can also be seen as a series of unveilings, a slow process of coming ever closer to the truth about that lynching and, therefore, to the truth about the two towns. But so much happens in the novel -- so many beatings and confrontations and storytellings and sexual encounters -- that each individual moment seems less important than the piling on of layer upon narrative layer. It's precisely the weight of those layers that the people of Galatia and Galatea cannot escape. Everything that happens in this novel feels overdetermined: there's nothing anyone can do that is not somehow rooted in what has already been done.

Thankfully, Peck's characters are vivid even in their imprisonment. If anything, he gives us too many well-realized voices, too many people to whom we feel compelled to pay attention. In addition to Colin and Justin, we're confronted with Divine, a young black hustler who has lifted his mannerisms and language straight from some television version of gay black culture; Wade, a painter who is the ostensible reason for Colin's selection of Galatea as a place to live; and Webbie, a Columbia grad who's returned to her small-town home to care for her father and who wants nothing more than to find a real life somewhere else. Then there's Rosemary Krebs, the woman who founded Galatea. Krebs is, unexpectedly, Peck's most memorable character; her single-minded determination to raise Galatea up and preserve it from the consequences of its sins makes this novel more than simply a dark picaresque.

Now It's Time to Say Goodbye represents an unusual turn for Peck, whose earlier novels Martin and John and The Law of Enclosures were masterpieces about romantic love characterized by precise observation and emotional lucidity. Where those books were about interiority and desire, this novel turns on what we might call exteriority, in the sense that what happens outside the characters matters more than what happens inside them. This perspective is sometimes in tension with Peck's older style, which is occasionally resurrected here, and it's not a tension that is always well resolved. At the same time, this is an unremittingly bleak novel. The sex is almost uniformly brutal, the violence is omni-present, and tenderness seems like a faint illusion. In his first two books, Peck proved himself the most emotionally eloquent writer of his generation. With his third, he makes us wonder if he is not also among the darkest.

James Surowiecki writes for the Motley Fool and Slate.

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