Staff Pick: Clock Without Hands

Staff Pick

Clock without Hands(mariner books)

by Carson McCullers

Sometimes words can ring with such personal truth that the reader grabs them like a life raft. For J.T. Malone, a druggist dying of leukemia in his 40th year, the words were these, discovered at random in a hospital library book: "The greatest danger, that of losing one's own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing . . . ."

Malone -- the protagonist in Carson McCullers' last novel, set in 1953 in the fictional town of Milan, Georgia -- knows that he has been losing himself in the tedium of everyday life: married to a woman he never really loved, stuck in a routine of going to his pharmacy, reluctant to give it up even at his weakest -- though he asks himself what would be the worst that could happen, the loss of another Kotex sale? Malone finds no satisfaction in setting his financial affairs in order. He bears the weight of some unfinished business -- and with it a terror greater than his looming death. A mysterious drama is unfolding as his last days tick by. He is "a man watching a clock without hands."

The drama revolves around a blue-eyed black youth named Sherman Pew, who yearns to know who his real parents are. He was left on a church pew (thus the last name), then taken in by a couple only to be "boogered" by the foster father, but ultimately finds love in another home, where he learns to sing and play jazz. Though filled with inexplicable fear and loathing for Pew, Malone, in the novel's explosive climax, gains a measure of redemption in his refusal to do him harm.

Despite Clock's grim tenor, hope and humor shine on every page. Thanks to the author's deft and compassionate hand, I connect with the brooding Pew, who cherishes the belief that Marian Anderson is his mother, and enjoys insulting his would-be white friend, Jester Clane, by telling him that his "innocent, dopey face is the living image of a baby's behind." I also feel Jester's youthful passion, which can spring into life "by a song heard in the night, a voice, the sight of a stranger, and at the time you most yearn to be witty, makes you feel like a fool."

I even like Jester's grandfather, Judge Fox Clane -- described in a newspaper article as "one of the fixed stars in that glorious firmament of Southern statesmen" -- who hires Pew as his amanuensis (a high-flown word for a secretary) to fix his noon-time toddy, read to him from Longfellow and Dickens (the latter Pew despises because of his penchant for orphans), and pen letters to the judge's friends in Congress about introducing a bill that would restore the currency of the Confederate dollar, a letter Pew flatly refuses to write.

In the end, I don't love but can pity sawmill foreman Sammy Lank, whose goal in life -- before he achieves real notoriety with his homemade bombs -- is hitting the jackpot by fathering quintuplets but only manages to sire twins and triplets, all grimy and sniffly-nosed.

Strange, heartbreaking, yet frequently hilarious, Clock Without Hands gives shape to these words from the omnipotent narrator: "The whole earth from a great distance means less than one long look into a pair of human eyes."

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