Garrett's 'Kingdom' -- race, war, the media

April 07, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

The Kingdom of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You, by George Garrett Harcourt Brace & Co. 334 pages. $24

In this irreverent, amusing tale, George Garret, author of 14 novels and more than a dozen other works, pokes fun at America while offering a wonderfully intelligent investigation of the nature of "reality," "perception," "truth."

The time is the present and the past, specifically the events surrounding April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered that Thursday in Memphis. In Paradise Springs, a small central Florida town, a traveling evangelist and a local girl were murdered, and a minister was found dead from a suicide.

Twenty-five years later, Billy Tone, a free-lance writer who has enjoyed some Hollywood success, sets out to reconstruct what happened and measure the distance our country has traveled since that violent day.

Each character in Paradise Springs, those from 1968 and those from the present, has a different memory of what happened. Their separate realities overlap, but never completely. In the end the truth, such as it is, seems to be just one more "spin," one more version of reality.

The Paradise Springs of 1968 is a backwater. A traveling, snake-handling midget evangelist, his towering, corpulent common-law wife and crew can draw a good crowd here.

By 1993, a black lawyer, who as a child cared for the town's reigning Southern gentleman, is a respected citizen. A cynical developer makes a tidy profit by building low-cost housing and naming it after Booker T. Washington. The beautiful, "fast" girl of 25 years ago now reads palms and communes with ghosts. Mr. Garrett's shifts in time and point of view are never annoying or confusing. Billy Tone's search provides ample room for musings on race, war, pornography, the media, the "savage surrealism" of television. King's life and death become a case study in celebrity, the public mask that hides the private self.

That masking is not only a device of the famous. Here's a white convicted murderer's recollection of a black man's trial testimony: "He showed up wearing bib overalls. And he never wore overalls before that time in his whole life. And all that 'yassuh' and 'nosuh.'... The jury loved him. They actually took his word against mine."

In 1968, a year of riots, protests and Vietnam, this black man knew enough to give the Southern townsfolk a comfortable cross between Uncle Remus and Stepin' Fetchit. He manipulated their reality, then disappeared into himself.

By turns comedic and tragic, "The Kingdom of Babylon" is also just plain fun. It begins with a prayer, "Be with me, merciful angels now and forever." By the novel's end, the "me" has been changed to "us." The supplication invites introspection amid the laughter.

M. Dion Thompson is a features writer at The Sun. He was assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He has also worked at the Miami Herald.

Pub date: 04/07/96

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