March 28, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
A SPRING OF SOULS
Hill Crane, Birmingham, 1999, $25.95.
William Cobb turns his attention to the Snopes problem in his latest novel. Faulkner's Snopes has evolved into the New Rich in the New South in the form of Roger Coles, self-made millionaire, civic leader and militia chief. Coles is power-mad and greedy, propelled by his adored Mama, who inspires him from her invalid's bed. He rules the town of Piper, buys what he wants and has plans for his county to secede from the state of Alabama and the U. S. A.
Coles summons Brenda Boykin, hometown girl with a teen-aged son, a divorce, and a degree in education from Chicago, into his kingdom to assume position of Head Mistress of his all-white segregation academy. Brenda is a larger-than-life heroine with a weakness for men. She learns quickly that Coles has lusted for her since he crowned her Homecoming Queen in 1968, and she finds him dangerously attractive in spite of herself. She admires him for ruthlessly getting what he wants, for demanding obedience, and for being unashamed of his greed. She is tempted by his wealth and power. Without this weakness, Brenda might be too strong, too tough and too lovely to believe.
While Brenda is getting to know Coles, other plots thicken. This novel is as full of intrigue and sub-plots as those of Dickens. The action begins and ends with a pathetic misfit named Byron Bailey, a militiaman who wants to save the white man's purity by violent action. He is blocked in his first attempt by the vision of a little girl with wispy blond hair, a vision that has been seen frequently in Piper in recent days. The vision appears at the beginning of the book and at the end. She represents the soul of all the lost souls, the spirit of the dead, the potential good. Perhaps she is there to dilute the evil contrived by the sick and twisted souls like Byron Bailey's.
Brenda finds the academy she is to head hopelessly out of date, the faculty made up of the living dead, and the students being molded into racists and bigots. She also finds her niece, a reflection of her younger self, and her best friend, the manager of an abortion clinic. To complicate her life a bit more, the football coach at the academy is her former lover.
Brenda's son resents the move from Chicago to Alabama but soon finds himself enchanted with the idea of playing football like most other boys at the academy. The coach's past relationship with Brenda complicates her feelings about her son's decision to join the team. The academy needs football star, and the coach finds one: he is an African American playing on the all black public school team. The coach must persuade Coles to give Otis Hunnicut a scholarship, disguising his race by calling him an Indian. This move speeds up the action of the story in unexpected and dramatic ways. How appropriate that high school football is the catalyst for the final action in this Alabama setting.
The editorial voice of Alex Gresham, talk show host on the local radio station, breaks into the plot periodically, bringing humor and local color with it. The people are concerned with the abortion issue, religion and garbage pick-up fees. The dialogue is also humorous, offering comic relief in the midst of real problems that divide people into warring camps. Alex simply insults those who express insane opinions, shutting them off with CLICK.
Cobb pays tribute to the writer who discovered the Snopes species by allusions to Faulkner's works. The scene between Coles' mother and her servant echoes those between Mrs. Compson and Dilsy, and there is even a grandmother called Damuddy. The day of the dramatic finale to the story is Easter Sunday. "Easter Sunday dawns bright and chill," Cobb writes, in a clear allusion to Faulkner's famous, "The day dawned bleak and chill," the first sentence in the fourth section of THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Faulkner borrowed everything he needed from earlier writers; he would surely approve of Cobb's tribute to him. Putting Roger Coles in Miss Emily's shoes would probably make Mr. Faulkner laugh.
Brenda has moved from Alabama to Illinois and back to Alabama in search of the good life. The novel's end is a new beginning for her, maybe a new story for Cobb and his readers. A SPRING OF SOULS is an impressive compilation of characters and situations that exist in the South; the story is embellished with humor, irony, pity and understanding. Cobb knows these people and why they are what they are. He knows that they need an angel, a spirit of purity and love to rescue them from themselves and the likes of Roger Coles, who wants to use them.