The Clock of Life
Nancy Klann-Moren (AnthonyAnn Books 2012, Trade Paperback) 354 pages, $14.99 cover price
“The bad news came on a Tuesday. I know 'cause it was Election Day. The only time to this day I didn't vote. November fifth, 1967. I was here at the store lookin over my sample ballot. About three in the afternoon, the phone rang. The Army chaplain on the other end didn't mince any words. He called from your house. He said J.L. was dead and Cassie'd asked for me.”
It strikes me that if the United States of America was a person, first of all it would personify as a male. There are all sorts of reasons for that judgment, however in general it is because the USA approaches the world with a certain overt cockiness, braggadocio and a resort to violence that seem like essentially male characteristics. Behind that masque of self-confidence is a strained being of self-doubt and self-criticism; a confused little boy trying his damndest to make sense of this life and all the questions and mysteries within it. He wants to do right, but what exactly does right involve?
One sees this outward-inward duality all through the lines of brilliant American literature. From the boldness and fear of Moby Dick, through the comic yet sharp social criticism of Tom Sawyer, the damaged heroes of Hemingway and the dark secrets of Faulkner's Snopes family – what the outside world is allowed to see is not necessarily what lies within.
There are more strains within this larger persona as well. Put bluntly, the overriding theme of American history has been racial and/or cultural prejudice. From the time of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom through the battles for racial and sexual equality, there has always been a dialectic argument as to what constitutes a clear Human Right as against what is a diminution of the so-called American Dream. That is as nearly impossible a task as your looking into a kaleidoscope, shaking it, then handing it to the next person and being annoyed that this dullard does not see exactly what you saw.
And lastly, there is so often the Christ-like model of good and righteous behaviour. One can make a pretty good argument that Jack Schaefer's Shane is the literary epitome of the 'man who knows right from wrong.' Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is one such character, as is Tom Joad in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
I wrote this quick overview of American literary themes not to show off; rather it is that Nancy Klann-Moren's The Clock of Life contains all of them without becoming a pedantic bore. That is no small feat and the result is an exceptionally fine and engrossing novel.
Taking place through the 1980s, specifically the early adolescence of Jason Lee Rainey, son of the late J.L. whose death in Vietnam is announced in the quote leading this review, The Clock of Life is essentially the story of Jason Lee discovering the story of the father he never knew. The late J.L. was a true believer in racial justice in his home state of Mississippi, marched alongside Dr King and of course was richly hated by the segregationist whites. Until he discovers a journal of his father's, Jason Lee knows nothing of this. His mother Cassie, J.L.'s young widow, tells Jason Lee nothing of his father's story.
So let us look at that. Is this a flaw in the novel? What mother would not tell her son the story of his own father, particularly when that story is one of heroism? Well, lots of them, to be truthful. For one thing, Cassie spends much of the novel still in a state of extended shock from J.L.'s death and she goes through a series of chemical dependencies to fend off Depression. That alone can lead to an objective silence. Also, having lost one beloved man to a desire for heroism, would she really want to send her son off on the same, possibly doomed path? So this is not just a literary device of holding off on the discovery; rather it is an empathetic drawing of Cassie as a fully-fleshed character.
It is also to be admired that Klann-Moren resists the urge to shove in a bunch of flashback scenes where J.L. is alive and talking. He is described well enough, particularly by his old friend Wally, yet he is allowed to remain somewhat mythic and ghostly. Good call. The qualities of the man are more important than the man himself. After all, supposedly we all know the lessons of Jesus, yet if you bumped into him on a busy street, would you recognize him?
And yes, race and racism pervades The Clock of Life just as much as it does To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel's closest kin. Cross-racial friendships are made yet are scorned by both blacks and whites, small battles are fought by blood brothers and needless to say, death can be the result when humiliation is the outcome of battle.
This is a fine, fine novel for all ages. Youth should read it to be inspired; those of us past youth should read it to be reminded of who we were meant to be.
Be seeing you.