I jumped this book up my list because someone was getting antsy. For some reason, he didn’t think I wanted to read anything he suggested, or that I didn’t like his last recommendation, Last Summer, so I’ve made a deal with him that I’ll read a book at least every other month from him (talk about dictating!). Thankfully I’ve really enjoyed both books he’s recommended so far. His next recommendation is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and these recommendations don’t even include the ones of his that I WANT to read!
I was a little torn on John Howard’s introduction as it felt a bit misleading, but it did provide an excellent history of Phillips life and the setting of the novel. Howard wrote about his own experience as an LGBT academic and activist, and the self-serving nature of getting this book re-published for its early LGBT themes. He mentioned Phillips lack of acknowledgement about his own sexuality, which was interesting, and noted that none of his other books did as well as The Bitterweed Path and didn’t contain LGBT themes.
I do have to question how much of the novel is inherently LGBT, not only from Howard’s discussion of “the love that dare not speak its name,” but also from the lack of definitive scenes until the end of the novel. There are a few scenes, including the first quote at the end of this post, which are definitely homoerotic, but until you get to one of the last scenes in the novel I questioned whether there was a real same-sex desire or a projected same-sex desire on a much stronger familial desire. Perhaps that is what makes this a great book, the open-ended interpretive nature of many of the story’s scenes.
In order for me to truly love a book I have to identify with a character and surprisingly that’s not as hard as it sounds. Perhaps I’m more empathetic to literary figures than I am to people (I wrote real characters first ;-D), but it’s never difficult to fall into a book and become a character or become a character’s mental voice. Falling into Darrel’s character was incredibly easy, but I couldn’t help wonder how much we, the readers, still didn’t know about him. Phillips very clearly states through Darrell that the only person Darrell will not lie to is Malcolm Pitts, so we have no idea if he’s lying to us.
However, the defining point of whether I loved the novel or not was when Emily (her relationship left intentionally vague) said,
“You won’t love anybody until you can give them more than they can give you.” (187)
Gut-punch. Breath lost.
To see one line written by an author I’d never heard of that in one sentence describes one of the biggest hurdles I will ever have to overcome hurt me on a physical level. It’s one of those things that you inherently know about yourself and it’s one of those things that you feel you’re the first and only person to ever experience (which you never are). And sometimes seeing it written, no matter how long it’s been since I last saw it written, it seriously caught me off guard. It was simpler this time. It was more poignant this time, from the scene to the delivery.
In addition to the personal experience of Darrell’s journey, there was the setting and the writing. I wasn’t bothered by the Black or Southern vernacular, which is surprising as I usually am. I found Phillips tight rope walking of southern literature and southern gothic to be incredible. Whereas Capote, McCullers and Williams seemed to revel in the downtrodden and desperate, Phillips focused more on survival and self-improvement at any cost. There were no tragic endings in this novel, it wasn’t exactly happily ever after, but there was a light shining in the future for the characters to move toward rather than the curtain fading to black and everyone continuing without agency or reason to wallow in their depths of despair.
Recommendation: Definitely. It’s not an “oh my gosh, everyone needs to read this,” because it has a quiet sensibility and I have a feeling it will continue to grow on me. It is a beautiful look into a specific time period in a specific geography with unique characterizations and personalities within the time of its setting and it’s writing. I’m definitely glad Howard went out of his way to get Phillips to allow the reprint as I would never have found this novel otherwise (among other reasons), but it’s a great contrast to the many other LGBT stories I’ve read.
Opening Line: “He was wearing the edge of Vicksburg where the buildings lay scattered along the knolls like stalks from wild seed.”
Closing Line: “After a while he lifted his eyes as though once again he might see the light from the Pitt house flowing through the arc of night.” (Whited out.)
Additional Quotes from The Bitterweed Path
“Far dow the track he saw a figure limp across the layer of smoothness toward Malcolm Pitt and he knew it was the one he had seen in the boathouse. A little shiver ran along the inside edge of his suit and seemed to touch him like a drawn finger. He began to breathe deeply and he could hear the starter’s words not very clearly. He waited, looking down; his knuckles were like white cotton-locks.” (6)
“Darrell took his arm from Malcolm’s knee and let the little chills run along his body as they would. He did not remember the games. He remembered the time and the faces and the easy movements of Roger. He remembered the slow sound of the ball like some echo from a deep well and the red-capped block of freshman yelling wildly when Roger won the first set; he remembered the scorer, perched in his seat at the west end of the net, his face moving like an old woman’s fan; and then he remembered the utter quietness and the stark knowledge that Perch had won the last two sets, that Roger had lost the match. Beside him the lean wiry freshman had taken off his glasses and was crying.” (116)
“Darrell looked away from her, like someone looking into another time and changing with his mind what he could not change with his hands.” (187)