Nowhere are the careless vagaries of fate more evident than in a town called Johnsonville on the northern Florida coast, where a family called the Toaks have pushed every possible social boundary to its logical extreme for three generations. Feddy Toak, in his forties, is a medical school dropout, recovering alcohol and cocaine addict, and former handyman. He lives marginally in cheap rental properties owned by his father, Teo, one of Johnsonville's most prosperous bail bondsmen, slumlord, and idol to a diminishing old guard of hustlers and con men who frequent such dives as the He Ain't Here Lounge. Jesmond Toak, Feddy's son, haunted by his father's violent past and current failures, is turning toward the low road.
The entire city seethes with schemes and intrigue and the plot builds as monies are reaped from a black youth falsely arrested for the murder of a white cop, insurance scams involving poor residents stricken with cancer and AIDS, and nefarious land deals involving cemeteries and real-estate scam artists. Suicides and murders, infidelities and violence mount and converge with shattering precision on the eve of a hurricane, forcing the entire community to struggle with its demons -- and search for some chance at redemption.
Chronicling a slice of American landscape and culture with rare levels of depth and originality, Cadillac Orpheus defies categorization: it is by turns exuberant, terrifying, hilarious, brave, brazen, and, above all, wondrous.
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About the Author
SOLON TIMOTHY WOODWARD was a David R. Sokolov Scholar in Fiction at Breadloaf and a 2005 Scholar at Sewanee. His short fiction has appeared in publications including The Gettysburg Review and Shenandoah. His story, "A Touch of Lubitsch," is featured in Harcourt's Best New American Voices 2007. Woodward is a practicing physician at the Mayo Clinic.
DION GRAHAM currently appears on The Wire on HBO. He also narrates The First 48 on A & E. He has performed on and Off-Broadway, internationally, in films, and in several hit television series. Award winning and critically acclaimed, his performances and narration have been praised as thoughtful and compelling, vivid and full of life.
Read an Excerpt
What he would suddenly remember was how dry her lips had been -- his mother's -- as if she had had a fever: such crinkled, pinkish hulls. As if instead of flesh the glassine panel of an envelope had brushed his forehead. This was what came to him in watching his father's face, his mouth. The boy was seven or eight. He had not anticipated his father's crying, no boy expects to see his father weep; he tried to focus on his father's hands massaging the steering wheel -- but the boy found himself, instead, tracking where the tears and sweat gathered in his father's mustache. The boy's cousin was in the backseat, asleep through it all. The revolving light of the sheriff's sedan pulsed through the interior of the car -- his father's car, as his father emphatically reminded his mother as she pushed the boy about the house to gather his belongings (pea coat, toothbrush, boomerang, a puppet: the boy's hands found these things automatically). When his mother came to the car, carrying the green and tan valise that was hers in miniature, his father twisted it from her and threw it onto the carport. -- Jack-shit from you. I can buy him whatever the fuck you've got in that suitcase! That was when his mother kissed him, quickly, furtively. Her lips were parched: she had stopped crying a while back; she was exhausted. You're just too fuckin' drunk to care. Ain't that right? his father heckled.
The sheriff had not anticipated confronting a grown, colored man crying at the steering wheel. A woman, yes -- that could be foreseen, even expected: fear, maybe manipulation. Who knows! If he had been privy to the emotions over the past twenty-four hours, traveling with two young boys, fatigue, maybe. But what the officer would not know was that his father had actually been cheerful up until the moment they'd been stopped. They had been lost for a few hours on access roads and traces spidering through the Tennessee backcountry. We're meandering! his father said, turning the steering wheel to and fro like a child playing at driving, the car zigzagging across the red baked clay. We're goddam meandering! his father shouted at the windshield. The boy flinched at his father's voice. The glass was a mire of sodden leaves and cicadas and other brown debris -- but there would be the brief tags of emerald luminescence from the fireflies, which the boy welcomed, withdrawing from his father (and the parched lips of his mother) to the gray night foliage and verdant memory.
His cousin had been asleep through all 476 miles from Georgia to their present location. Paul had slept through the leaf-stripping rain; through the stultifying noon heat; through the boom and scribble of the lightning cascades (whose glare the boy found frustrating -- like the fireflies, only a hiccup: a hesitant glimpse of the surrounding orchards and hills.)
But his cousin: sleep was where he primarily resided. Paul seemed to sleep through his childhood, through natural disasters, family upheavals. Most impressive, Paul had slept through The Rabies Child incident.
It had been a neighbor's mongrel, one late spring, just above the Florida panhandle.
Only when the girl was slavering, flailing in rictus, did someone connect the immured bats, the dog, and the girl. The girl was a younger sister to Paul. She was only nine and, sick, began barking: the slightest noise, a pulse of wind, a bad smell, would bring on a laryngeal spasm, then a choking squeal. She became haunted, snapping. She died in fever, recoiling at the slosh of a washbasin.
It's that fuckin' dog, one of the uncles, Simon, suddenly recounted. He told the other brothers (eight of them in all) of seeing the dog jogging and whimpering past him down the trace with a wreath of four or five fluttering bats dangling from her neck, an embedded necklace. Simon and a buddy were drinking in the cab of his truck, laughing at the bitch's misery as she went by. Then it came together: the bite, the girl's seeping wound, the strange sickness of the girl. And then -- the cur yowling, trapped in the neighbor's barn, shot. The eight Toak brothers convened at the house of her father, Pritchett, where it was decided that he should seek justice in the death of his daughter through the death of the owner of the dog. So they equipped him with a rifle and a Luger, their souvenir from the war. Lemme come wit you, Pree. No tellin', the oldest Toak volunteered. Pritchett nodded in the affirmative. Paul was no more than half awake on the couch. Blinking, stultified, he sleepwalked through the commotion to the kitchen, where he sucked down a concoction of cornbread and buttermilk, bobbing his head in tempo to the course of the discussion. Then Paul staggered back to his corner of the couch (the glaucous-eyed, cataract-beset grandfather occupying the other) and curled up. The two Toaks hurtled from the family's luctual chorus (the boy's father the loudest) over three miles of paltry tobacco land, swamp bush, and pitch, and murdered the owner of the dog along with his family (a wife, four children.) His cousin slept on. All them Toaks a devil's piece of work, the boy's mother said. Soon after, the perpetrators of the bad acts were two of the thirty-nine Negroes lynched that summer.
License and registration. The sheriff was perplexed and bemused. The boy from fear began to cry. His cousin, either coming to surface from sleep or in sleep, began blubbering as well. Jeez Gawd the Almighty, the sheriff shook his head, My luck. A carload of wailing nigras.
Everything that is sclerosed into memory may still be betrayed by willed nostalgia. The boy's eyes moved from his father's mouth to his hand: the falsely benign hand against the rocker panel. Years later he would try to see it (the hand) as something separate from his father, or maybe an aberrant tic; alternatively, he would tell himself that his father had no choice, that all was done in an effort to rescue them.
The hand pounced upon the sheriff's tie and jerked his brow against the doorframe before thudding the head onto the steering wheel. What the boy would remember was the tail end of what the sheriff said starting with, Jeezgawd -- the first thing said he couldn't recall in part because of his father shouting. The sheriff in memory was younger than his father. And the boy thought he could remember the last thing said by the sheriff, Ohjeezgawd.
But what was the first thing? It bothered him, because he could not remember. Maybe, Help, he said, or, No! Stop! Maybe it was the backward plea to Jesus.
What's wrong with you? What's wrong with you, man? his father shouted. The officer yelped, his body contorted in the window. His head was almost in his father's lap. The curious thing -- no, the frightening thing -- was that his father was engaged in a monologue. Long afterward, the boy could see his father (this alchemy of thought and memory) pummeling the officer repeatedly in the face, all the while talking to himself, his father's face still damp (the boy saw this between the shadows cast by the blue revolving light) from his tears and sweat. At that point it was as if the boy, and the man the boy was to become, sat together watching (the boy on the man's lap, say) and together came to the realization -- My father. My father is not good. But it was the boy by himself who was frightened as his father's hands consumed the sheriff's features.
In the end it was his cousin who tried to stop it. He reached over the back of the seat and, with his child's strength, grabbed the thrashing arm and pulled; when that did not work his cousin deliberately scratched him: parallel tracks of black streaks beginning at his father's wrists, deepening into a single welt.
His father had the man's head between the spokes of the steering wheel. A grotesque sculpture: John the Baptist's head before Salome. He gouged one eye repeatedly and pried at the other, all the while chittering over the officer's pleas.
Then his father pried back the lid of the man's left eye, the relatively good eye, and addressed the man in an unintelligible murmur that the boy could not hear.
What did the old man say exactly? The boy -- Feddy -- as a man conjectured it was about blindness, possibly blindness and sleep, for his father on occasion in later years would ramble on about the sleep of the blind, speaking of his father's blindness. The boy questioned his father well into adulthood, trying to get him to recount what had happened that night -- but his father construed the query as a prompt for anecdotes of his youth and survival, which he turned into forums for wheedling, intimidation, and braggadocio. He would wax pensive, once actually expressing a kind of remorse for not killing the officer, drawing the analogy: A sandwich fuck. Like having one woman underneath you but fantasizing about the one you really want.
I should kill your motherfuckin' ass but I've got children in the car, his father said. He then adjusted a new cigarette, plucking a fleck of tobacco from his tongue. The spavined man moaned in response and the boy watched as his father placed his hand on the man's crown, and in an inverted obstetrics, pushed. His father then stepped from the car, grappled the man by the collar and seat of his pants and threw him into a selvage of laurel and scrub. You don't know me, his father said. And you're goddam blind now. But let me tell you -- some goddam nigger did this. Heh. Remember -- and you shouldn't have any trouble now going to sleep. Heh.
The boy made himself believe that this was what he heard. What he remembered.
The boy would definitely remember that the wind that night was festive, with scraps of scudding clouds and whirling snarls of black skittering things.
It would only be as a man that he could say to himself it was like checking a stage clock during a play (a revelation that occurred while watching his son's Halloween performance): inadvertently you chase the minute hand for time. You, in your near-adult fears and concerns, near-adult worries, turn to that parent as a child -- glance at the clock. Because you forget. You forget that he or she can provide neither the succor nor the ballast you desire and need. And then you sheepishly remember that neither real time nor the time of the play moves the clock, that the clock and that parent are in a place outside of time, both chronometric and human. Copyright © 2008 by Solon Timothy Woodward
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
'Cadillac Orpheus defies categorization' is right. The book was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. If it wasn't for the main character(s), there would have been no anchor, adhesion or cornerstone. There was too much going on with this one....