Ernest Gaines goes home again, in books

May 30, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — Washington

The author's photo on the dust jacket on "A Lesson Before Dying" shows a big, rough-hewn man. There's a baseball hat on his head, but no team logo -- just a nondescript, weather-beaten piece of head wear whose only function is to keep the sun out of his eyes when he's working outdoors. His suspenders reflect not a six-figure-a-year yuppie lawyer but a working man used to hard, physical labor.

Ernest Gaines was a child of the fields, picking potatoes in southwest Louisiana by the time he was 9. He was born in 1933 on a plantation in Pointe Coupe Parish, and for his first 15 years lived the unpitying life of a rural black person in a defiantly hostile environment. In "A Lesson Before Dying," a novel set in Louisiana in 1948, he writes of an exchange between a black schoolteacher and a white man that reveals the unyielding social strictures of the time and place:

"She's old," I said. "She doesn't feel that she has the strength to come up there all the time."

"She doesn't, huh?" Sam Guidry asked me. He emphasized "doesn't." I was supposed to have said "don't." I was being too smart.

Ernest Gaines got out of Louisiana when he was 15, moving to the markedly more agreeable environment of Vallejo, Calif. He's lived most of the remaining three-quarters of his life away from Louisiana, primarily in the San Francisco area. He began writing in the mid-1950s, while at San Francisco State, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow, a great honor for a budding writer, at Stanford in 1957-1958. His first novel was published in 1964, only a decade and a half after he left a plantation in the backwoods of one of the nation's poorest states.

And yet when he has sat down to write his fiction -- six novels and two collections of short stories -- he has always returned home, to southwest Louisiana and the poor and working-class blacks and whites who must live together no matter how they feel about the other.

For Mr. Gaines, the reason is simple.

"I like San Francisco for its physical beauty, and because my family is there," he said in his Washington hotel room during a recent promotional tour for "A Lesson Before Dying," his first novel in 11 years. "I've been living in California for 45 years and people are always asking me when I'm going to write something about the state. I tell them I might when I get all the Louisiana stuff out of me. But I don't know how long it will take. Because no other place on Earth affects me like that little part of Louisiana I grew up in."

Despite the popular success of one of his novels -- "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (1971), which was made into a highly praised TV movie starring Cicely Tyson -- Mr. Gaines may be one of the least-known writers of high-quality fiction in this country. It could be partly because of his subject matter, or his simple, unadorned writing style. Or maybe it's because the author is similarly low-key.

"I think he's oddly underrated, because he's one of those black writers who has been on the program for a long time," says Baltimore novelist Madison Smartt Bell, who wrote in a review of Mr. Gaines' last book, "A Gathering of Old Men," that it was "the best-written novel on Southern race relations in over a decade."

Mr. Bell continued: "At certain times he has been greatly celebrated, and his subsequent work has not gotten the attention it should have. But people like Ernest Gaines are a lot more important than anyone has fully recognized."

But recognition, Mr. Gaines insists, is not what he wants -- or expects.

"When people ask me if the success of 'Miss Jane Pittman' changed my life, I say, 'Well, I was able to pay my rent on time and buy shoes,' " he says, half-seriously, in his rich baritone. "But no, not really. Because whenever a writer ever thinks he's made it, he's in trouble, I think. 'Miss Jane Pittman' was only one little step on the way to something else."

An extraordinarily unlikely career

That "something else" -- a career as a writer -- has seemed for much of his life extraordinarily unlikely, considering his background. For he grew up in a time when dreams -- any kind of dreams -- were considered absurd for someone born on an old plantation in rural Louisiana.

It's a locale he tellingly evokes in "A Lesson Before Dying." The central character, Grant Wiggins, is the local black schoolteacher in the parish. The school is run-down, and his students have a shorter school year than white students because they must work the fields. Grant detests his surroundings and his situation, and constantly fights a battle within himself either to stay and help the students, or else flee -- to wherever.

But he is asked to aid a young black man named Jefferson, who is to be executed for his role in the murder of a white grocery store owner. During his trial, Jefferson -- whose only crime was being close to the scene of the crime -- is characterized by his defense attorney as merely too stupid to commit a murder.

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