Rural Alabama in the 1920s is on the verge of electrification. Already, the pylons take the current from town to town, passing over the heads of poor farmers who think it is witchcraft. It is a power that is seen to be slightly beyond comprehension and slightly beyond control.
But, for Roscoe Martin, wedded to an unforgiving wife and her family’s failing farm, it is an opportunity to evolve. With powered machinery, the farm would not just turn a profit, it could reap huge productivity dividends. With some technical know-how, it is a sinch for Roscoe to hook up into the grid, siphoning off power that would be lost anyway through onward transmission. And Wilson, the wise black farm manager seems willing to go along with it…
However, the reader knows from the very opening words that it is not going to go well. The current will kill a man, and ultimately Roscoe and Wilson are called upon to pay the price. Roscoe receives injustice as his punishment far outweighs an offence that would now seem trivial; Wilson receives an injustice as he is deemed to be an accomplice to a project that would only ever have benefited Roscoe.
For the first two thirds of the novel, we interleave chapters narrated by a third person, and chapters narrated directly by Roscoe from prison. This works well up to a point, and of course there is an inevitable contrast drawn between Roscoe’s incarceration for having killed a man by electrocution, and the nascent use by the prison system of the electric chair. Unfortunately, the prison chapters soon run out of much to say and both sets of chapters end up telling the backstory. It is very well told, but it does feel as though the narrative, like Roscoe’s sentence, is unnecessarily prolonged, running to 20 chapters simply to match Roscoe’s sentence.
The final third of the novel abandons the chapter format and gives a first person narrative of Roscoe’s life on release. This offers plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast Roscoe and Wilson’s experiences and fortunes. It is pretty emotional in places. What it lacks, though, is any terribly cogent rationale for how things ended up as they had. This doesn’t seem to be a case of crime and punishment, or even behaviour and consequences. It just seems to be random outcomes from unjust situations with characters behaving strangely given all that we have come to know about them.
This is not a bad novel; even if parts of it can feel repetitive, it is not a long novel and it mixes the bleakness with humour and sunlight. There are some interesting ideas knocking around. But overall, it doesn’t quite work; it is not as profound as it clearly hopes to be.
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