The very fine poet James Cherry has given us his second novel, Edge of the Wind, an excellent example of the page turner thriller that does double duty as a sharp depiction of character. Set in and around Stovall, a fictional west Tennessee town, with a community college, Edge of the Wind is the story of a young African American man, Alexander van der Pool, an erstwhile student at Stovall State College, then a former delivery man who could've moved up in the company hierarchy but for some very bad woman trouble and his unfortunately aggressive reaction to her accusations against him, and is now (or rather, has been since he was a teenager) a full-time schizophrenic who has lately chucked his meds and is about to either be sentenced to prison or sent on a return visit to a mental health institution, at the hearing he decides to skip out on. Alex also fancies himself a poet; he's obsessed with poetry, reading it, making it, being a great poet. It's not fame he wants, but to feel the inky blood of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and all the other greats run through his veins like words on fire.
But being a schizophrenic, Alex has long, rambling talks with Tobi, who resides only in Alex's head, and who expresses all the rage and gallows wit long associated with underclasses everywhere that Alex can't give vent to himself and maybe doesn't even know he's feeling on a conscious level. Aside from being a diagnosed schizophrenic and being possessed by poetry, he's also in possession of a gun; thus, the inevitable occurs: Alex hitchhikes to Stovall State (where he'd had a previous altercation that had ended in violence and his being expelled) and takes a literature class hostage. As much as he knows anything (on a conscious level) about the situation he's landed himself in, all he really wants is to be able to read his poems to the class and to have them and the professor, herself a published poet, critique his efforts and to tell him he has a real future as a poet, which is itself an irony, since, as he's later told, the number of poets who actually can make a living writing poetry can be counted on a couple of fingers on one hand.
But what Cherry gives us in the two or three samples of Alex's poetry is the genius of almost pure gibberish, the spewings of a very disturbed mind, though Alex himself is steeped in a knowledge of the poetical canon and can quote various immortals at length. We're presented with a kid who is dead serious, but alas, has very little talent, and part of the wonderful tension of the novel is the class's reaction to his work: do they take it seriously or are they just humoring him, hoping to get out of there alive? Cherry never tells us directly, but we can presume it's the latter. And indeed, it takes an excellent poet to write such purely crazed verses: think of the 18th century religious poet and madman, Christopher Smart on a cocktail of acid and meth, and you have an idea how truly deranged Alex's poetry is, in terms of both meaning and syntax.
Aside from Alex, the Edge of the Wind abounds with other clearly and cleanly drawn characters, most notably Sheriff Warren Johnsey, who begins the novel as a good ole boy with the usual prejudices of his generation and place, and who ends up as maybe the most sympathetic character in the novel, as he tries with all his might to give poor Alex the chance the kid longs for. Cherry introduces Johnsey in full idyllic mode, on his way to his favorite stretch of the river to fish, but of course he's thwarted by the hostage situation from having a nice, quiet day (the fish are really biting) and trying to come to grips with the memory of his dead son.
Aside from the Sheriff who is summoned to the college as hostage negotiator inundated by the news media, the hostage taker's family and the families of the hostages, and by the merely curious who are always drawn to situations that can violently spin out of control, Cherry wonderfully delineates the students in and professor of the literature class who are all being held hostage. I appreciated that Cherry didn't focus solely on Alex and Sheriff Johnsey as the major antagonists and duelists, but lets us into the lives, dreams, disillusionments, disappointments, and terrors of the class. Too often, in novels with hostage situations, the victims themselves get short shrift from the author, with all the focus spotlighting on the hyperbolically deranged and aggrieved individual calling the shots and on the stratagems of the negotiator.
But here, we're told and shown how Megan Fly, the professor, has given up her aspirations of tenure and a big poetry career at a prestigious North Eastern university to move to rural Tennessee with her husband, who simultaneously wants to paint and to run the family farm he's inherited. Megan is a ball of contradictions: she loves her husband, but resents that he's completely uprooted her life and her ambitions and that she's now reduced to teaching lit to students who are taking her class because they need the credit, the easy A, and not for love of literature. Then there's Monte Merriweather, who's hoping he can earn a baseball scholarship to Florida State University after rehabbing a blown-out knee and starring in centerfield (like his idol Say Hey Willie Mays) for the Stovall State baseball team. There's also Robert Strother, an out of work middle manager at a warehouse, with all his worries for his family's suddenly precarious future and depression over what has become of his once comfortable middleclass existence. But my favorite is Brandon, the white kid who believes he's channeling the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson, and who insists that he be called Tennessee Red (for his carrot top hair), and the odd thing is, the kid can really blow the mouth harp and play guitar. Cherry shows himself a music aficionado far beyond my feeble powers of understanding chords and notes in the way he discusses what the kid plays.
I won't give anymore of the plot away, as I said at the outset, Edge of the Wind is a real page turner filled with humor and sorrow and a true glimpse into the human condition and what makes us all tick.