"My name is Emet, and within my name lies my death" is how the narrator in Arkansas native C.L. Bledsoe's gripping new novel "Man of Clay" (published last month by Main Street Rag) introduces himself. Emet, which means "truth" in Hebrew, begins the novel with his journey across the ocean, chained and boxed on a slave transport ship. He describes the horrific depravity, which reads very much like a slave narrative. On the ship Emet is introduced to an Anansi, a trickster god whose natural form is a spider, but can take the shape of a man, and inhabits West African and Caribbean folklore. Thematically, the stage is set.
The setting is the Civil War, and Emet, a golem — a porcelain-colored magical being rooted in Jewish folklore — has traversed the Atlantic Ocean and ends up on an East Arkansas plantation owned by a Master John Crowley. Upon meeting his mythical creature, Crowley cheers, "Welcome to Arkansas!" He then closely examines his new possession, amazed by its human-like form, yet his lack of body hair inspires Crowley to glue two eyebrows to his face, soft hairs taken from the family cat. He then immediately puts Emet, in all his supernatural glory, to work.
Literary fiction traditionally orbits the familiar universe of unexceptional triumph over personal sabotage, the plot often hinging on a uniquely private insight harvested from a white lights epiphany, or from, say, watching a trash bag blow in the wind. But how does a character who is actually damaged, has no personal freedom, is unable to speak, and doesn't even fully grasp its existence, reconcile these harsh facts and find solid ground from which to stake his claim of self-worth and identity? In "Man of Clay," such a character attempts to answer these existential questions.
Shortly after arriving in Crowley's lopsided world, Emet learns his fate. Crowley needs Emet's superhuman strength and tireless endurance to assist in building a replica of Stonehenge, among other ostentatious projects only a wealthy crank could undertake. Crowley is fascinated by celestial origins and speculates about the moon's habitability. His wife is long dead. His daughter, Clara Bell, lives on his property, along with Othello, his slave driver; the Winfreys, a trio of overseers consisting of a father and two sons ablaze with poor white hatred, and a host of slaves and servants. He's the portrait of grand megalomaniac Southern aristocracy. Crowley explains that he's going to train Emet in the operation of the entire plantation, and that Emet will be in charge when he's gone. "Do you know why I will entrust this to you? Because you are not capable of thought. You will simply do exactly as I say without hesitation or question. You will act calmly and rationally, which sets you above Mr. Winfrey in this regard, and you will act intelligently, which also sets you above Winfrey. Does this appeal to you?" Emet, who can't speak, composes his response on his miniature chalkboard, telling Crowley that he'll do whatever pleases him.
Emet befriends Othello, learns his way around the plantation, and then Crowley reveals his newest rich person adventure: building a hot air balloon so that he and his son, Zeno, who is off fighting in the Civil War, can hop over to the Andes Mountains to soak up savage wisdom from the natives. But that trip won't happen for several reasons, one of them being that Crowley's son has been killed, and that's when the story jumps up two gears and accelerates. As news of the Confederacy's disastrous losses reaches the plantation, various interpersonal conflicts overheat, and long repressed truths surface, the novel shifts into an anxious, pre-catastrophic mode. The reader senses the first rumbles of doom early in the novel, and the closer we get to it, the harder Bledsoe pushes on the gas, until it's too late to get out of the way.
Bledsoe, who grew up on a rice farm in East Arkansas and studied at the University of Arkansas, is a gifted storyteller, so it's not surprising that "Man of Clay" is abound with folktales from different cultures. He clearly has been influenced by storytelling's power to define the unknowable. Bledsoe expertly threads multiple literary genres through the novel: slave narrative, magical realism and science fiction/fantasy. But, ultimately, it doesn't matter what literary style, narrative voice, set pieces or genre ethos Bledsoe exploits, because his imagination is persuasive and he's written an unforgettable and engaging novel.
In the end, we learn that Crowley instructed Emet to tell his story before his memory completely disappeared, which has already started to happen by the novel's conclusion; and, yet, this fast approaching blank slate could very well be the answer to his predicament, and the solution to how he can finally achieve freedom.
I spoke to Bledsoe recently about the novel and about Arkansas fiction:
What was the inspiration for "Man of Clay"?
It came together as a couple different story ideas. I wanted to write a Civil War-era plantation story set in Arkansas. I wanted to write a golem story in America. I wanted to write a kind of folk history of Arkansas.
How would you characterize Arkansas fiction?
Arkansan writing tends to have a folk element. Donald Harington is our best example of this. Arkansas is a place of legends and tall tales, which permeates our writing. Another commonality in Arkansas writing is the outsider, the troublemaker, the wanderer. Donald Hays writes great stories about these kinds of characters, as did John Fergus Ryan, and, of course, the great Charles Portis. All of this is because of the culture these writers come from. Arkansas encourages that oddball, loner mentality, for better or worse, or we could say "individualism," if you want to go less inflammatory. Arkansas is the underdog, the local boy struggling to make good. But we stick together and support our own, which also makes us stronger.
If you could have dinner with any five Arkansans — living, dead, real, or imagined — who would they be?
Louis Jordan, Vance Randolph, Daisy Bates, J. William Fulbright, the Fouke Monster.
If you could mandate that all Arkansans read three books, what would they be?
"Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" by Donald Harington, "The Dixie Association" by Donald Hays and "Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock" by Jack Butler.
What are you working on now?
I just turned in the first draft for the third book in my urban fantasy series, "The Necro-Files." These are funny, new adult urban fantasy books with a quirky sensibility. They're similar to the TV show "Grimm," or all the vampire shows, but mine are funny. I also recently finished edits for a horror novel called "Sorting the Dead." I also have a poetry collection I consider a kind of sequel to [my book] "Riceland" called "Driving Around, Looking in Other People's Windows" coming out next year. I have several other novels I'm shopping around. I write every day.