At the center: Charles Alexander, twenty, groomed from birth by his mother to be a Baptist minister,
teetering on the edge of his faith. In his last year of college, working late one night at the newspaper office, he accidentally witnesses the murders. The killer is Hope Kirby, World War II hero, member of a large mountain clan of farmers, who has discovered his wife’s infidelity. Although Kirby’s code of honor requires that he exact vengeance, it won’t allow him to kill an innocent bystander, and Charles goes free, promising not to tell what he’s seen.
But Charles does tell, and we watch, fascinated, as a trial, an appeal, and a new terror unleashed on the countryside draw the entire county into the action. Among the people most closely involved: the skillful, overweight, hard-drinking lawyer for the defense; two Baptist preachers—one liberal, one a strict constructionist—each with a secret to hide; a lady banker determinedly headed for trouble; a big-hearted good-
old-boy sheriff; Charles’s disturbingly freewheeling, freethinking sometime college girlfriend. Most importantly, we see the Kirby clan: Pappy, whose extraordinary patience, hard work, and self-reliance cause his hardscrabble farm to prosper until he’s turned out by the coming of a national park; and the five Kirby sons, who are trying hard to make a new place for themselves in the town.
As these and others play their parts in the affair of honor, we see Charles and the Kirbys begin to reexamine their dramatically opposing but equally encapsulated ways of viewing life—fundamentalist Christian and ancient “code of the hills.” And as the novel draws to its climactic and satisfying close, we see them—and finally the entire town—profoundly, permanently changed.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
An Affair of Honor is the third of a loose trilogy of novels set in fictional Bourbon County, Tennessee, the first two volumes being The Coming of Rain and After the War. He is also the author of a fourth novel, Bound for the Promised Land; two major biographies, Thomas More and Martin Luther; and a style book, The Writer’s Companion. He was the editor of a book of Civil War poetry and of several volumes in the Yale Edition of The Complete Works of Thomas More. He died in 1999.
Read an Excerpt
Years afterwards when an aging Charles Alexander held his newborn granddaughter in his arms and looked through the window of the hospital room towards distant trees along the Charles, he thought, If Hope Kirby had not spared my life, this child would never have been born.
He remembered the pistol pressed to his forehead, the resounding metallic click of the hammer cocked in the dark, the oddly compassionate words: "I'm sorry, boy. I've got to kill you, too."
Charles held his granddaughter--a bundle asleep, tiny and helpless and soft. His son put her in his arms. She breathed in a great sigh. Life. Her fingers and toes delicately sculpted by light. Charles almost cried, but he laughed instead. They all laughed while she slept.
"What is to be will be," the Primitive Baptists said.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. That was the belief of the Apostle Paul and of Eugenia Alexander, and until he met W. T. Stace and then Hope Kirby it was the gospel of Charles Alexander. Then something else replaced it. When he grew older he could remember himself, the passionate religious person he had been. But he couldn't understand it. All those foolish things piled together in his head! None of it made sense to the later Charles. But there it was in 1953.
All things are as they are for no reason at all, and if they were different, there would be no reason for that either. That was W. T. Stace and Charles Alexander. What was life? One damned thing after another, and if you had a lucky break or two you did something you liked, and so it passed. Charles's might have passed much more quickly than it did had he not had the mercy of Hope Kirby.
Saturday night, August 8, 1953.
It had been miserably hot. The temperature broke slightly when the sun sank in the west, turning off the fire that baked the world. The round thermometer with the needle and the dial over the door of Kelly Parmalee's clothing store on the square showed ninety-four degrees at two-thirty in the afternoon. Bourbonvillians noted it. Kelly Parmalee stood outside, looking up, making conversation about his thermometer, laughing, clapping friends on the back. Everybody was Kelly Parmalee's friend. Pencil mustache like Errol Flynn's. Today he wore a canary-yellow blazer and a dark purple necktie and a pin-striped shirt with a button-down collar. Classy dresser, Kelly Parmalee--a walking model for the men's clothes he sold off the rack for the better classes in Bourbonville. You couldn't dislike him. He had a gift for believable flattery.
People wanted the temperature to go to a hundred. A hundred was something to brag about, something to recall proudly later on when anybody complained about the heat of this or that day. You didn't get a hundred every summer in East Tennessee. Lacking a hundred, people talked about hot days, hot places. "Hell, you don't know nothing about heat till you're in the Solomon Islands and the Japs are shooting at you. That's heat, boy."
When six o'clock came, the farmers headed home to milk, and the townspeople went home to eat supper, and sit on their porches afterwards and fan themselves, speaking in murmuring platitudes about this and that. Some of them sat inside and watched television now. Television was new in East Tennessee. Fuzzy, black-and-white, but free once you had put money down on a television set and started making the payments on the installment plan. People were proud of the big aluminum antennas on their roofs.
Red Eason, editor of the Bourbon County News, went home early after he wrote a little story about how hot it had been and what people said about the heat. He quoted six people. Names sold news. Put as many names in the paper as you could. Lloyd's wisdom, left behind when Lloyd died. Lloyd drowned in the lake last summer with that girl. She pulled him down, people said. Even with his gimpy leg from Cassino, Lloyd could swim like a shark, but not with the girl's panicky arms around him. Their bodies were pulled out of the lake four days later, puffed up and rotting, starkly white, and naked. People knew what they had been doing.
"I saved his goddamned life at Cassino, and that's how he died," Bones Spradlin said. "Dumb son of a bitch. I always told him his prick would kill him." Bones ran the Sinclair station across Broadway from the newspaper office. People called him Bones because he was obese. Bourbonvillians exercised irony in their nicknames. Bones had pulled Lloyd to safety at Cassino and risked his own life doing it. Now he spoke of it as wasted effort.
Lloyd Brickman--editor in chief, the Bourbon County News. Red said, "I keep waiting for Lloyd to walk in the door." That was over a year after Lloyd's death.
He wouldn't take Lloyd's desk. He gave it to Charles. It was in the corner behind the high counter. Myrtle Gillespie had a desk next to Lloyd's, and Red's desk was hidden behind the frosted-glass wall on your right as you walked through the door. When you stood at the counter, you could look down and see Charles and Myrtle at work, and one of them got up to wait on you. Lloyd always liked to greet people, his fedora on the back of his head, his double-breasted suitcoat open in front. Red bow tie. He must have had a hundred red bow ties. And the cigar. He always had a cigar in his mouth, sometimes lit, sometimes not. In movies editors smoked cigars and wore fedoras pushed back on their heads. Men in authority, men in a hurry. So Lloyd. When he was hauled up out of the waters of Fort Bourbon Lake, his naked body white and swollen, his tongue burst through his puffy lips like an insulting gesture against the world.
Myrtle went home after lunch that Saturday. She had a wedding to cover in the evening. Pat Goulding, age twenty-one, and Bettye (pronounced "Betty") Douce, age nineteen. "It's so sweet and such a fine wedding. The groom and the best man and all the groomsmen are going to be in tuxedos with white jackets. They went to Knoxville this morning to rent them from Squiz Green's." At Squiz Green's on Market Square it cost five dollars a night to rent a tux.
The groom was a telephone lineman, and the bride was a graduate of the Tennessee School for Beauty Culture. She worked with Abby Kirby down at the Triangle Beauty Shop on East Broadway. It had been a little hamburger joint, built in the shape of a triangle, but it failed, and Hope Kirby helped his wife buy it, and it became her beauty shop. Business was so good she had to hire Bettye Douce. The wedding was to be held at the white-frame Cumberland Presbyterian Church on A Street. Myrtle had to go home and freshen up before the wedding. Shower. Deodorant. Powder. A beastly hot day for a wedding, the church not air-conditioned.
Charles Alexander loved the newspaper office--reek of printer's ink, rattle of Mergenthalers when Turpin and Cooper clicked away at them during the week, loved the rhythmic crash and bang of the job presses, and loved the complicated reciprocal crashing of the Miehle Horizontal tabloid-sized press that put the paper out on Monday and Thursday afternoons. Now silence. Saturday afternoon and the office quiet and vacant except for him. He sat at Lloyd's desk amid the odorous ghosts of old cigars, using the upright Underwood standard typewriter that Lloyd had hunted-and-pecked on, now (like the '37 Ford) Charles's. Charles could type without looking at the keys.
On Saturday afternoons he wrote his own column for the Monday paper. This week it was about Agnes Ginn. Reminiscences of her father, an infantryman in the Confederate army. She was a neighbor. The week before, he spent an evening with her, drawing out of her faded eyes and wrinkled face the sound of bugles and the crash of musketry, the smell of blood on hot fields, long cooled. A little resentment: the Federal veterans in the neighborhood got pensions; her father did not. Charles wrote, restraining his imagination, feeling an occasional Miniver Cheevy pang that war was not as gallant as it once was. Korea not like the Civil War. Korea over a few days ago, the armistice on July 28. Charles turned twenty next day. No great joy about the end of this war. "Truman's War," people called it. "The Korean Conflict," they called it--not even a war. But people died.
About six he strolled up to the Rexall, greeting people, and bought a hamburger and a fountain Coke in a big paper cup and sat at one of the marble-topped little tables and talked with David Pleasant and Bob Saddler, who were having a bite to eat before going to a revival out at Varner's Cross Roads where the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church had a preacher from Valdosta, Georgia, blazing away with descriptions of the never-ending fires and thirst of hell. A full house every night and shouting and lots of people streaming down to the "altar" to receive the love of God.
Bob Saddler said, "Come on, Charles. Come and climb a spiritual mountain with us." Charles said, "Not tonight, Bob. I have so much work to do." Bob was disappointed. Bob was always climbing spiritual mountains, always disappointed when others were not. He went to revivals with the dedication of an addict. He wore a light-blue suit and a necktie and polished brown shoes, and he put oil on his thick black hair and combed it straight back. He went about wearing a radiant Christian smile, speaking of Jesus as if the two of them had just had a long, friendly talk. He did not have a car, but it did not matter. He walked from house to house knocking on doors and telling people that Jesus loved them.
Charles was an atheist. That is the most enigmatic thing about him throughout this story. His atheism was like black granite hidden deep under luxuriant fields. He could not confess it to anybody, not even to himself. A young preacher boy could not admit to anyone that he doubted the God he had vowed to preach for the rest of his life. He thought if he worked hard enough at it, his faith would come back and atheism would go away like a stray dog. Bob Saddler did not have a doubt in his head. Some people made twirling gestures with their index fingers against their heads when Bob Saddler's name came up. Hardly anyone in Bourbon County had escaped at least one of Bob's enthusiastic lectures on how beautiful heaven would be and how sweet it was to know that through all the starry universe the love of God ruled everything that was. Obviously in heaven birds would sing, Bob said, because the eye of God was on the sparrow, and every pain suffered by people and animals in this mortal world had some purifying purpose that was like the refiner's fire.
Charles came back to the office to edit a pile of reports from stringers scattered out over the county, women who wrote the news of their little communities. Names sell newspapers. The stringers wrote about who was sick and who visited at church and what the preacher preached about and who called on whom and what kids were doing at school and who made the dean's list at Tennessee Wesleyan or Carson-Newman or the University of Tennessee or Tennessee Polytechnic Institute or Middle Tennessee State College or wherever anybody in the neighborhood went to college. Their reports came in scrawled on cheap tablet paper and with uncertain grammar and syntax. Charles typed them up, deftly emending the language, and got them ready for the Mergenthaler operators on Monday morning.
He told his father he would be late. Paul Alexander said he would be missed at supper, but he had the other boys--Stephen and Guy--and he did not protest. Charles made thirty dollars a week. Money talked to Paul Alexander. He never stood in the way of jobs his sons did. Stingy, some people called him. Frugal, Juliet Ledbetter called him jokingly--before she had her stroke and stopped talking altogether.
Paul Alexander would be happy to have Stephen and Guy at home. Guy his father's pet. Guy, cross-eyed with his head sloped in back, a coarse beard that was like sandpaper to shave, and somebody had to shave him every morning because he could not shave himself. Guy the firstborn. Oldest in the family. Stephen was the great musician, younger than Charles. He would play for a square dance that evening at Farragut up in the country. He would eat and run. Charles thought that his mother, Eugenia, would object if she knew Stephen played for dances, even square dances. But she was dead since May. Cancer. The death she feared most. Sometimes when Charles thought of her, he wept, her absence an emptiness in his heart.
His mother thought he would marry Marlene Fieldston--the fine Christian girl who seemed everything Eugenia Alexander could want for the son destined to be a preacher. But Marlene had broken off with him before Eugenia's death. Another absence. Grief and jealousy devoured him in fits sometimes. Tonight in Chattanooga she was probably out with one of the nicely scented, curiously epicene boys in the Bible college she attended down there. She was right to break things off. He had sinned against her. Hormones against God, he thought much later in his life, not only forgiving himself with wry amusement, but mocking who he had been and wondering at his adolescent conviction that the Good Christian with discipline and willpower put aside every temptation to feel a beautiful girl's tits or to run his hands up her lovely legs to her moist and innocent crotch--even if the beautiful girl seemed at first to welcome his mouth and his hands. In August 1953 Charles felt an apathy, an inertia within that he could only fight off by working as hard as he could. Work was his cure. Guilt was his meat and drink. No one had as yet told him about Augustine and Jerome, those passionate warriors for the Almighty who spent their lives fighting sex as though it were Satan himself. Perhaps he would have sat in a tub of cold water and studied Hebrew, as Jerome had, to get his mind off his nether parts. He was twenty years old. That's some sort of excuse.
Tonight Charles had to read Balzac. He was enrolled in the summer school at the university--his last summer. He would graduate in June.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This gripping and challenging novel, the third in a trilogy set in fictional Bourbonville, Tennessee, was completed shortly before the author's death in 1999. It is a story that poses questions of honor and inquires into the difference between right and wrong. It is the 1950s and Bourbonville is a deeply religious community, almost obsessed by biblical injunctions and fundamentalism. Hope Kirby, a man of the hills and a World War II hero, follows his moral imperative when he murders his unfaithful wife and her lover. The slayings are accidentally witnessed by 20-year-old Charles Alexander, a college senior and soon to be Baptist minister. While Hope's conscience enables him to exact deathly vengeance it will not allow him to kill an innocent, so he spares Charles after exacting a promise that the young man will never tell what he has seen. But Charles is unable to keep his vow, and soon the town is a caldron of fear and reprisals. Did Hope have a right to kill his unfaithful wife as an ancient code of the hills dictates? Was Charles wrong to break his oath of silence? It seems that everyone from Charles's liberated college girlfriend to the Kirby clan headed by Pappy to rival Baptist preachers has a secret to hide. All have a role in this affair of honor. A trail ensues. Although his guilt is evident, Hope is a war hero and there is strong sympathy on his side. Charles, on the other hand, must contend with very personal faith issues. Richard Marius has penned an exciting and exacting legal drama peopled with characters perceptively drawn.