Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Review of Calvin Baker's "Dominion"

I wrote a review a little while back of Calvin Baker's novel, Dominion. It was published in the Raleigh News & Observer on August 13 2006. It's been a little while since then, so I thought I'd post it here also with the hopes of persuading a few more folks to give Mr. Baker's book a shot. Here's how it went...

A mythic tale of blacks in early N.C.
By David Anthony Durham

In the opening pages of Calvin Baker's third novel, "Dominion," Jasper Merian battles an evil spirit to win dominion over his newly acquired land. He chains the spirit to the bottom of a lake in an episode that calls to mind Beowulf's underwater clash with Grendel's mother.

It also rings with similarities to the opening of the Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic novel "Sunset Song," in which a landless traveler does battle with a Gryphon. On defeating the beast, he is awarded the land he liberated for "him and the issue of his body
forever after." So too does Jasper triumph over his spirit-monster, winning the right to carve out a home for his family.

What makes these allusions so startling is that Jasper is a recently freed slave in 17th-century America. As Baker tells the tale of three generations of an African-American family in the years leading up to and including the Revolutionary War, he references literature from a Western tradition that has rarely been equated with the black experience. The merging of classical references with the hardscrabble facts of early American life infuses a mythic grandeur into the founding of the nation and skews racial stereotypes so completely that some readers may be challenged to even recognize his characters as black.

Once the troublesome spirit is dealt with, Jasper sets about taming his wild, hilly North Carolina holding. The task fires him with purpose and ambition: Jasper "could not contain his vanity and surveyed the increasing space he was creating in the woods, beaming broadly ... None could stop him from dreaming then, as he looked upon his lands, and shone like a newborn constellation in the early evening sky."

He builds a home he calls Stonehouses and soon finds a wife, Sanne. Together they have a son, Purchase. As they continue to expand their holdings, Jasper lives unsure of what the future holds, but intent on persevering: "Of the future he knew not, and tried not to give much care, knowing only that he could not foresee it, but that things would pass in their time, and work either for good or ill depending on other devices."

A great deal of the novel passes this way, a chronicle of lives and destinies unfolding. It is rendered in eloquent language that ennobles black and white, slave or free characters. There are moments when the omniscient narrator feels similar to the one used by Edward P. Jones in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a slave-owning freedman, "The Known World." But "Dominion" is less concerned with the intricacies of slavery than with the nature of identity.

Baker has written about race before in his two previous novels "Naming the New World" and "Once Two Heroes" but here his elevated language highlights the shared humanity of his characters. Baker asks readers to reflect on the social complexity of America in a time before slavery had been thoroughly codified and institutionalized.

Years pass. The Merians prosper. Jasper's son from his first marriage shows up at Stonehouses. He has run away from his plantation and is welcomed into the family. The two sons -- one free, the other a fugitive -- grow to maturity under Jasper's watchful eyes. The fate of all those at Stonehouses ebbs and flows, sometimes turned by whims of nature, sometimes touched with mystic import.

In one episode, Purchase, now a blacksmith, crafts a sword of prophetic artistry. Those who gaze upon it see within its swirls and contours the entire history of the Merian family, past, present and into the future. In the same way that only King Arthur, the rightful heir, could pull Excalibur from the stone, nobody but a man of the Merian family can so much as lift Purchase's masterwork.

Such moments suggest an unfolding providence at work, but at other times the characters are possessed by unreasoned impulses that seem to highjack the direction of the narrative. Purchase, for example, falls into an all-consuming love for a traveling preacher woman. He abandons his family to chase her. They share an on-and-off love that is never truly explained. His child from this relationship, Caleum, is sent to Stonehouses, where he becomes the third generation of Merians to work the land. Purchase, however, never truly returns to reckon with the family he left behind.

Toward the end of the novel, the mythological underpinnings again come to the front. At the Revolutionary War battle of Saratoga, Caleum fights with the familial sword. He slays numberless foes. Eventually, he does single-combat with a hero from the British side, a slave named Jupiter. Their clash seems to have leapt from the pages of "The Iliad."
Not long after this, Caleum -- wounded, chastened -- turns toward home and walks for a time in Odysseus' shoes. Like Homer's character, he returns to find his wife being courted by other men, with demons yet to be reckoned with before he can find peace.

At times "Dominion" can be a frustrating novel. It can feel rangy, as if the author and the characters are both trying to find their purpose and not always succeeding. There is a lack of closure to some of the important narrative threads -- including a true reckoning with the hole in the novel that Purchase's absence becomes. And there are times when Baker seems to squander opportunities for exploring the issue of slavery.

In one instance, a friend of Caleum's is captured by a slave dealer, transported to market and sold -- despite the fact that the young man was actually free. It seems strange that the narrative chooses to follow a character outside the Merian family, one who is introduced at the moment of his misfortune. Stranger still that his story is soon dropped.

Nevertheless, "Dominion" is an intriguing mythologizing of an African-American family's destiny. It is sewn together like a quilt that incorporates classical influences with the hardships of the early American frontier, creating from them a unique patchwork-style portrait. Baker has pushed the boundaries of African-American literature. Hopefully he -- and other writers -- will build on this ambitious effort.



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