Put two people in a cramped room, or stick them outside under the hot Mississippi sun, and Chanelle Benz will know just what to do. In The Gone Dead, the first-time novelist captures human interaction with the polish of a seasoned dramatist, armed with a bevy of tools — a feel for smooth dialogue; a rich sense of place; a knowledge of history and its impact on individuals, families, and communities — that charge her words with authenticity.
“You’re not going to be living here full-time, right?” Lola asks her estranged cousin, Billie, who’s returned to their Delta-adjacent hometown after a 30-year absence. “You don’t want to be hanging around with folks still mad they lost the Civil War.” Coughing on whiskey, Billie responds, “Oh my God.” Lola shoots back: “Girl, I’m serious.”
Appearing near the end of one of the book’s more exuberant scenes, this back-and-forth serves as a nice primer for The Gone Dead. Benz basks in the easy pleasures of a lighthearted catch-up session, while forebodingly sneaking the racial tensions surrounding them into the girl talk. Lola and Billie are cousins, sure, but they haven’t seen each other in decades. Their immediately recovered shorthand doesn’t quite negate the emotional distance and unsettling mystery that now exist between them.
It’s 2003 as the novel begins, with Billie at last returning to the home her father, a renowned black poet, bequeathed to her before his untimely death. She has not been back since she was 4 years old, when he died, and her memory is foggy. The matter of his passing — supposedly the result of a fall — is hardly settled once Billie starts scoping out her Mississippi roots. She was effectively cut off from her father’s side of the family when he abandoned her and her mother for the Deep South of his childhood. Now she’s back, and her uncle Dee (Lola’s father) keeps steering her away from conversations about the past. Neighbors tell her she’d gone missing the day her dad died, to the extent it made the local news. And her wealthy next-door neighbors, the McGees, seem to hold the answers to questions some of her family members couldn’t begin to answer, even if they wanted to.
American literature loves a good destructive homecoming, and Benz doesn’t stray too much from the tradition, keeping her reader off balance as she shifts among several conflicting points of view. The approach is effective, if a little deceptive. You can look at The Gone Dead as either a halfhearted crime thriller, one not particularly interested in the quick pacing and tight plotting inherent to the genre, or a well-rounded Southern novel, wherein injustice is ingrained. Billie merely needs to step outside her father’s shabby shack to summon centuries of a community’s pain. “Today she feels like these places look,” Benz writes as Billie drives around the town, “like she has been scattered in the rain, never to be picked up again.”
Even the home’s dusty confines are evocative of worlds and tragedies beyond Billie’s family. The novel’s central puzzle presents itself about a third of the way through, when Billie finds the second chapter of an unpublished manuscript written by her father, a memoir of his work as a civil rights activist in the ’60s, buried under the house’s disarray. Where is chapter 1? Why is it undiscovered? Billie gets closer to those around her in order to reach the truth. But her single-mindedness gets in the way of character complexity. She’s kept at a distance, as far from us as she is from the town, and this hinders the narrative intrigue of her investigation.
Benz’s gift for structure is undeniable, however. Her sprawling cast glistens with distinct cadences and perspectives that combine for a satisfying, affecting whole. In one powerful scene, Benz flashes back to a conversation over bourbon between the McGee patriarch and his son, Harlan, a ne’er-do-well just back from a year at college. “Harlan had felt like a real man out there discussing hard subjects in the dark with drinks in hand,” she writes. “But then like a little boy, marveling at the love he felt for his father and the rich land buzzing all around.”
Family, land, power — The Gone Dead tackles big topics intimately. Perhaps its most unique element as a Southern novel is its potent underlying melancholy. As Harlan and Billie skirt around their mutual attraction, sitting together in silence one muggy afternoon, we get this gorgeous passage: “It’s hard to say more. To say this is all they can be, given their history, which began before them and may go on long after they’re dead.” This accounts for the novel’s deliberate slowness, with Benz taking her time in exploring and understanding a permanently scarred landscape. The climax feels far too rushed, but it does lead into a note-perfect denouement, in which The Gone Dead takes one final deep breath. On the exhale, listen closely. B+
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