Author: Marlin Barton
Publisher: Frederic C. Beil
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)
"The Cross Garden" is Marlin Barton's fourth book of fiction and his best.
His two collections of short fiction, "The Dry Well" and "Dancing by the River," and his previous novel, "A Broken Thing," are all set mainly in Barton's home territory, that section of Alabama along the Black Warrior River near Forkland, Alabama.
Although he has placed some stories in Tuscaloosa—Barton is a UA graduate with an MFA from Wichita State—he is at his strongest when evoking the Black Warrior and the poor and sometimes desperate denizens who live along those shores.
In this novel we are introduced first to Nathan Rutledge, recently returned—after fifteen years of self-imposed exile as a construction hand in Birmingham, Chattanooga, Charlotte, and Nashville—to his home in fictional Demarville, on the river's banks. As a boy, Nathan had helped his father earn needed extra money running trot lines and fish traps. The river, itself a character, is a living mystery, timeless, dangerous, slow and brooding.
Nathan has taken to fashioning wooden crosses, painting them white and driving them into the ground in a clearing in the woods not far from his river home. Early, on page 18, we learn why, and it is not, in this novel, a spoiler.
Fifteen years earlier Nathan, involved in the burglaries of fishing camps and week-end houses, had helped kill his friend and fellow burglar, Walter. Walter was weak, and threatening to confess to the thefts. Nathan has forgotten exactly where they buried Walter, so each new cross he drives in is his most recent best guess.
Nathan was never suspected, much less caught and punished, but his unconfessed, unpunished deed has ruined his life.
We meet young James, Walter's son, fifteen years old, just returned from a six-month term at Hargrove, a juvenile detention center. James was convicted of burglary, and now, stealing again, seems destined to return to incarceration.
Barton has taught Alabama juvenile offenders for years in the acclaimed program Writing Our Stories and he makes good use of that experience here. The combination of suffocating boredom, fear and violence in Hargrove seems convincingly rendered.
Nathan tries to help James, who is working for the same country crime boss as Nathan had, but his guilt makes him ineffective, as mentor or father-figure.
Nathan is also having an affair with James' mom, Hannah, but again is so wrought-up by his guilt he feels unworthy, his every intimacy with Hannah a violation, a kind of rape.
Walter and Nathan, James and his friend Arthur, all robbed for the same man, the villain Puckett. He is a fine fictional creation, a fearsome Southern villain, a kind of rural Fagin who runs a gang of young boys, fences the stolen goods, and also owns a honky-tonk strip club. Puckett is 6' 4" and huge. Physically powerful, he also has the strength of consciencelessness. Puckett is not merely bad; he is evil, a walking agent of Satan.
Reading of him, you can see him in your mind's eye, a casting director's dream.
Barton is purely a Southern writer and comparisons to Faulkner are inevitable, but I think he writes more in the tradition of the fine Alabama novelist Madison Jones, in a novel such as "An Exile" which was made into the film "I Walk the Line" starring Gregory Peck, with theme song by Johnny Cash.
And Jones himself is in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a novel like "The Scarlet Letter" or a story such as "The Minister's Black Veil."
All humans are flawed. We sin. But most of us are endowed with a conscience and so the recurring bite of guilt and remorse sets in.
Until there is public confession and atonement, our lives are blighted and we can never be happy or whole again. The pressure builds towards an inevitable cataclysm.
Barton still has a tendency to overwrite, have his characters mull over the same issues three and four times, but "The Cross Garden" has a narrative drive the earlier work didn't have, and the future looks bright.