“Natchez Burning” has many faces. It is a tough, brutal book, just short of sensationalistic on occasion, yet, at the same time, a well-intentioned, furious look at the legacy of Southern racism.
Greg Iles returns to many of the vivid characters from his previous books, and astute readers will even find echoes of William Faulkner and, particularly, Robert Penn Warren’s classic “All the King’s Men.”
Penn Cage, from “The Devil’s Punchbowl,” is now mayor of Natchez, Miss., and finds his family at the center of a still-hot racial deadlock. It seems that Penn’s highly regarded, much beloved father, physician Tom Cage, has been accused of the mercy killing of the black Viola Turner, his nurse back in the 1960s who had unexpectedly returned to town after disappearing years ago.
Tom refuses to defend himself, even as Penn refuses to accept his father’s decision. Penn is willing to do anything to protect his family, and in so doing discovers that his father has been pretty much willing to do the same for his own family for decades.
The mayor’s search for answers leads through a sort of mini-history of Southern racism. The novel opens with the ghastly flamethrower murder of a black musician and store owner, which Penn soon discovers is linked to past deaths, including a medical colleague of his father’s, the wife of a prominent citizen and even Viola. Responsibility consistently points to the “Double Eagles,” a clandestine offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan with attachments to organized crime.
“Natchez Burning” resonates with deftly rendered supporting characters, from a steadfast small-town newspaperman to an unethical district attorney, from a dogged newspaper editor (and Penn’s fiancée) to a horrifically disloyal old woman and sister.
Rarely does Iles resort to cliché. He creates absolutely believable, often discomfiting characters, including one of the most repugnant villains imaginable, a man who has for years carefully cloaked himself in respectability.
Of equal importance to the success of the novel is Iles’ rendering of the Southern landscape, with its determination not to accept the inevitability of change and its very human desperation for acceptance — and for family. And with family comes the pervasive responsibilities of the past. As Iles reminds us during one of the novel’s truly unsettling moments, “If a man lived long enough, his past would always overtake him.”
It has been a long wait — five years, in fact — since Iles’ last book. “Natchez Burning,” the first volume of a proposed trilogy, is long at 800 pages, but expect sleepless nights of being tempted to complete just one more of its irrefutably intimate and gripping chapters.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.