The year is 1953 and the USA is going through some changes. In the Deep South in a town called Milan, the abolition of slavery has brought about much confusion: a black man can go unnoticed in a white church, the price of keeping a servant has gone through the roof, mixed race children have started to populate the streets, employees are expected to pay income tax…
In this progressive, ever shifting clime, J. T. Malone has just months to live. A wishy-washy, malleable, middle-aged pharmacist adhering to a routine that hasn’t changes in decades, he muses over his life and its shortcomings; resenting his wife for her success, he questions the fate brought about by his supposed leukaemia, while his good friend, the once charismatic Judge Fox Clane, vehemently opposes the diagnosis. But looming death can change a person and Malone slowly begins to question the Judge’s judgements. Meanwhile, Fox Clane is having problems of his own: his grandson, Jester, offspring of his late son, has become obsessed with his amanuensis, the blue-eyed “nigra,” Sherman, who is tolerated in such capacity for once saving Clane’s life.
From the moment Malone bumps into Sherman on the street, the undertone of the novella changes, although the reader cannot be sure why at such an early stage. In Sherman, Malone senses danger. In Sherman, Carson McCullers elegantly presents the core issue of the story: the inevitable meshing of black and white and the subsequent knee-jerk reactions. And Sherman is angry. An orphan found on a church pew, he can only assume that his black mother was raped by a white man and, too ashamed to admit it, left him to fend for himself. After running away from an abusive white family, he spends his life searching for the woman who may be his mother, even writing to a famous singer in the hope of being reunited with the source of his black roots. But things are not always as they seem and the novel provides one speculation after another as to the history of Sherman’s parentage, each time leading to a dead end.
That the judge and Sherman are linked in more ways than one is evident, but the prior association is only hinted at throughout as the story dips in and out of the psyche of each character. We know that the judge’s son committed suicide on Christmas day some years previous, which Clane passes off as a random brainstorm. We know that he did so because he couldn’t stand his father’s racist views with particular reference to Sherman’s mother. And it becomes plain that with the Judge’s ingrained bigotry and Sherman’s volatility, this placid connection cannot end happily. The loose ends do finally come together in one emotional, violent culmination.
As in life, there is no black and white in this book – no “goodies” or “baddies” – which adds a roundness and depth. The Judge, his arrogance and prejudices aside, is nothing more than a weak old man in denial; forlorn after the death of his beloved wife, he finds himself in a constant state of remoteness, to which he refuses to admit even to himself. Sherman is damaged goods: abandoned and mistreated, he rails against society and the friendship so eagerly offered to him by Jester. And Jester, himself an orphan, sees in Sherman a wonderful escape from the lifestyle he is used to; he is fascinated by Sherman and senses also the enigmatic link to the dead father he knows nothing about. Each character’s loneliness is created by distinct situations and each is bonded to the next in hatred or in love.
It’s not often that I shed a tear at a book and it was only unfortunate that I was sitting at my desk at work with a mouthful of sushi when I reached the end. However, I do fail to see how anyone could read Clock Without Hands and not get emotional. In such a small volume, McCullers manages to engage the reader, telling a tale with equal elements of hope and despair.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carson McCullers deserves a review of her own. She was a remarkable woman who suffered strokes from an early age. At the age of 31 she had a stroke that left her almost paralysed. From that moment on, she was only able to type with one finger. She went on to publish several novels, living until her untimely death at the age of 50.