The story begins with three white West Texas teenaged boys finding a drunk black man walking alongside a road. They chase him into a field, and two of them beat him to death with a baseball bat; the third boy, sickened by the act, throws up. But the law deems them all responsible, and after trial they go to prison.
The third boy comes under the influence of a white supremacist, a fellow inmate who hates blacks and Jews. He becomes a kind a kind of priest in the supremacist’s church, until a prison librarian begins to slip him books, books which begin to raise doubts about these doctrines he’s embraced. He eventually rejects them, only to be stabbed to death by another inmate.
All of that happens with the very early part of Alan Kessler’s novel Clarence Olgibee, when the scene shifts to central Ohio some 20 years earlier, to the family of the title character. Clarence is a black high school student, aiming to be accepted by Oberlin University and eventually become a doctor. His parents are a rather strict and controlling mother and a father who can recite large sections of what it is he’s been reading, mostly in the sciences. And that is almost all he does.
Confusion as to how this family in central Ohio connects to a killing and imprisonment in West Texas slowly and gradually unfolds. It involves a politically progressive white family moving into a predominantly black neighborhood; a teenaged girl whose doctor father is injured in an accident, forcing the family to downsize its economic status; a cousin who visits from the South; a shadowy organization that takes shape behind the façade of a country club and the town’s well-to-do citizens; and a stint in the navy and results in a fateful act of heroism.
Kessler is the author of two previous novels, A Satan Carol (2102) and Shadowlands (2013). None of his works, including Clarence Olgibee, can be called conventional. But they can be called thought-provoking, arresting, surprising, and fascinating.
As Clarence Olgibee unfolds, the reader experiences a story of connection and inter-connections. What a teenager does in central Ohio leads to a death in a West Texas field many years later. A joke involving a barrel rolled down a hill results in tragedy. A cousin spends a few months living with a family and influences his nephew forever after, including after the the cousin’s death. A promise made on a deathbed leads to unimagined consequences. The past is always present, and is the present. And the future.
Top photograph by Alex Borland via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.