Title: Morgan’s Eddy
By: Tom Blackburn
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Set in a small North Carolina town in the year 1947, Morgan’s Eddy is a moving tribute to the wonders of youth and innocence amidst the trickery and degradation of the workaday world. It’s a story of lecherous old — and not so old — men, deeply embedded oppression, and random cruelty, and yet it’s infused throughout with the kind of sweetness that filled Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Blackburn manages this feat by focusing this story on Faye Bynum, a very bright and very young woman who has just managed to escape the tragedies of her past.
Faye’s somewhat tenuous salvation has been brought about by Forde, whose father owns the local newspaper, The Intelligencer. Forde, who ardently loves and admires Faye, has given her the job of city editor. Given her circumstances, one might expect some humility out of Faye, an awareness that she’d better stay in Forde’s, and everyone else’s, good graces since, without them, her career choices pretty much run the gamete from factory worker to waitress. Humility and playing it safe, however, are not Faye’s long suit. She is youth in all its glory: prickly, idealistic, ready to take — and give — offense, both self doubting and boundlessly confident, most of all, passionate about the world around her. It’s very hard to read Morgan’s Eddy and not join Forde in his love of Faye.
Faye needs her prickly determination to cope with the small Southern world she’s found herself in. The racial injustice of her era is pretty well tolerated even by the “nice” white people who surround her; they’re more likely to see her as childish and annoying than idealistic when she asks her nosy questions. The condescending brush offs, “Heh. You an’ John Brown, that’s a-moldering in his grave. Well, bless your heart.” escalate to real violence as Faye investigates school board corruption, segregation, the Klan, and corrupt police. This is, in part, an adventure story with a plucky and frequently exasperated heroine at its center. The stakes are real, though, and injustice is never taken lightly. The grim reality of Faye’s new home gives urgency and weight to Morgan’s Eddy, her earnest and only partially successful labors are won at the cost of great suffering.
Even so, Faye and her adventures remain a delight. We understand Forde’s allegiance to:
(T)he memory of the moment when Faye exited the screen door of that porch in her daffodil swimsuit, her beautiful naked back carrying her into her life after the humiliation at the hands of Deputy Windell. Forde pledged eternal loyalty to that singular moment, promising it never to forget, and never to think ill of Faye for the choices that she made after it.
The book follows Faye through escapades with a cad, a nun with a shady past, a mother and daughter who believe (perhaps accurately) that they have psychic powers, and her own burgeoning sexuality. Even so, it is Faye herself who is the beating heart of Morgan’s Eddy. An older writer tells her, “I meant the richness you have discovered in this – I cannot but call it insignificant – setting. What a gift you have for revealing the hidden glories of a perfectly ordinary place.” Blackburn shares Faye’s gift, and his novel is a delight.
Interview with the Author
Fang:To me, Morgan’s Eddy reads like a love song to youth and innocence. What inspired you to write it?
Blackburn: Age and experience. Specifically, those of Faye Bynum, who is a minor character in the Hap Maryland six-volume family saga. By the end of that series (Assisted Living) she is a very frail 90-year-old whose feistiness pleased my writing group so much that they requested that she have a novel of her own. The result was Time and Chance, which starts her out as a 19-year-old intern at a Charlotte newspaper in the 1940’s. So it was an exercise in extrapolating the highly experienced, no-nonsense nonagenarian back to what she might have been when she was young and innocent. The “love song” part comes in because love is one of the few really transcendent experiences we have. Christians are fond of saying, “God is love;” well, that’s the same thing as saying “Love is God.” I think we ought to pay attention to things that claim to be divine. 2. You are, if I may say it, an old man.
Fang: Were you self-conscious about the fact that your main character, Faye is a 20 year old woman?
Blackburn: I try to avoid self-consciousness, since everyone else is so much more interesting. Women of Faye’s age often puzzled me when I was 20-ish myself, so I suppose you could accuse me of inventing one whose behavior and motivations I could understand from the start. In fact, Faye often surprises me and I find myself in the position of following her around (don’t read that as ‘stalking’) and, with raised eyebrows and many a tut-tut on my tongue, writing down her surprising but – this time – understandable doings. I guess Faye is a possible avatar of the 20-year-old opposite-gender person who lurks in the subconscious of all of us; in her case, she found a way to escape onto a written page.
Fang: Faye is regularly required to fend off some pretty grotesque sexual harassment while she is still awakening to her own robust sexuality. Given Faye’s intelligence, idealism, and the fierce struggles she goes through as an investigative reporter, why does sex play such a prominent role?
Blackburn: Well, gee whiz. The human race has survived evolution’s trials not just by inventing language and tools, but also by being experts at domination and sex. Unfortunately, with the problem of species propagation and survival long since over-solved, we have all this loose sex drive sloshing around and getting mixed up into everything. Faye is molested and nearly raped by a deputy sheriff because cops (not all of them, of course) routinely dominate and rape women they encounter in the course of their work. She is groped by two older men because, especially at mid-century, older men routinely groped younger women. (Keep it up long enough, you may be elected President.) I speak more in sorrow than anger here, because (a) I’m not a woman, so have not suffered this myself, and (b) the dominators and gropers and molesters are carrying forward an evolutionary scheme that is no longer needed or appropriate in the present. Not that that’s offered as an excuse; they should take a cold shower and keep their stubby hands to themselves.
In view of all that, I am sort of fascinated by the way we have mostly agreed not to mention this 900-pound hormonal monkey that we all carry on our backs; and by the ways we have invented to deal respectfully with each other in spite of the monkey’s constant jumping up and down and demanding yet another banana.
Finally, I think we can all agree that loving sex is one of the nicest things we experience in life, so I tend to reward characters’ good deeds with good sex even in the absence of long-term commitments. It is a breakthrough for Faye when she realizes that she is free to love even people who don’t necessarily love her.
Fang: Unlike your characters, your “omniscient” narrator sometimes seems to look for humor even in violent or scary scenes. Isn’t that rather callous of (him)?
Blackburn: Thank you for the parentheses around “him.” I try to keep my narrator gender-free; however, men are notorious for yucking at inappropriate times, such as during heartbroken Faye’s suicide attempt after the ghastly scene with Travis, Claude, and Brenda. In my case, that is probably an attempt to neutralize the pity and terror. Still, you have to admit that the notion of Forde face-planting at the sight of naked Faye rising from the water like Venus, by the light of a cockeyed Chevy sprawled across the dock, has a certain snort potential. Even Satan probably falls on his butt once in a while, dragging a soul off to Hell.
Fang: Morgan’s Eddy is a sequel to Time and Chance. Is there a third book in the works about Faye?
Fang: Can you tell us about it?
Blackburn: A little. It is set in 1964 (still ancient history for most readers), so Faye is 37 years old, and at the peak of her intellectual and physical powers. Some of the ferment of the ‘60’s is brewing (Jack Kennedy was assassinated less than a year before the book opens, and the Beatles are just coming into the scene.) I am trying to follow a theme of courage in the face of defeat (something of a new experience for Faye, who has pretty much triumphed in the first two books), while still giving Faye and all her friends the freedom to keep surprising me.
Fang: You’re a scientist and musician, as well as a writer. How is writing different from your other pursuits?
Blackburn: My work in science and my fun in music are less creative than writing absolutely has to be. When you sit down at a keyboard to write fiction, you are challenged to produce something completely new. Of course, this is also true of the creative scientists and of composers, neither of which would remotely describe me. Narrative seems to give me access to unconscious reasoning and creativity that neither science nor music, much as I enjoy them, do.
Fang: When did you start writing? What got you interested in it?
Blackburn: I wrote my first pretty-good short story when I was a visiting scientist at NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, living by myself and a bit bored. “Martian Gardens” was a short story built around the Monopoly board, about a doomed geologist marooned on Mars. (I am confident that it had nothing to do with Andy Weir’s wonderful recent novel The Martian, since it was written in 1980 and never published.) In the years after that, I did manage to publish some short fiction in little magazines.
I started working on long-form fiction in my next boring job, as a program officer for a grant-making agency in DC. That first novel is still up on blocks in the back yard; once in a while, I raid it for parts. After completing a second novel about a young musician who reinvents himself as an engineer, I started a series of novels that I intended to be mystery thrillers, with an antihero protagonist. Harper F Maryland was originally modeled on my low opinion of my boss at the grants office. Faye Bynum makes her appearance in a bit part as a snappish middle-aged reporter in the 3rd book in that series; which explains why she has that slightly old-maidish name. If I’d known she would have her own series, I probably would have named her something like Lola Transom.
What got me interested in writing was reading. I have always had my nose in a book, to my parents’ disgust. I remember after reading Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, thinking ‘I could write like that’ (and after reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, ‘No, you couldn’t.’) My favorite authors have been Mann, Pynchon, Kafka, Nelson Bond, and Richard Russo. I expect that they’ve left traces in the way I write in Faye’s saga.
Fang: Do you have any advice for writers?
Blackburn: Write. Write clearly. Use short words before long ones. Require adjectives and adverbs to justify their existence before you leave them in that first draft. And – in my opinion – writing fiction is an exercise in conversing with your unconscious mind, which knows what it wants before you do. Don’t push characters around for the sake of a pre-cut plot; they’ll drag their feet and then flee entirely, leaving you with cardboard cutouts that wouldn’t fool anyone. Let your characters be whatever that nonverbal synapse in your subconscious had in mind when they first showed up. Be sympathetic to your characters, even if they are on stage to be jerks and villains. Every jerk was somebody’s baby. And try to write dialogue that sounds like how people actually talk to each other. Do not force a character to advance plot exposition through dialogue; they will sound like a tour guide, and it will be the end of them as a real human.
Finally, write to a consistent theme, and invite all of your experiences to contribute what they can to that theme. Having a detailed message and plot in mind (worse yet, diagramed on graph paper) as I write has never worked for me. When I started Morgan’s Eddy, my plot outline would have read something like, “Oh, you know, the South, Jim Crow, the ‘40’s.” All the rest of it was a surprise.
I meant the richness you have discovered in this – I cannot but call it insignificant – setting. What a gift you have for revealing the hidden glories of a perfectly ordinary place.