The Trouble With Friendship

Review of Night Talk By Allison Xantha Miller
Newsday, November 2, 1997

PEOPLE WHO had a childhood friend of a different race may remember a time when race's social significance turned creepingly palpable, when invitations to birthday parties came less frequently or not at all. In Elizabeth Cox' "Night Talk" two girls at the brink of puberty, Evie (white) and Janey Louise (black), tentatively begin a new friendship. The circumstances of their meeting are perhaps unlikely: In small-town Georgia of the 1950s, Evie's father leaves his family one night. The next day, the family's maid, Volusia, and her daughter, Janey Louise, move into the house to take care of them. The novel, narrated by a 30-year-old Evie, opens as she prepares to attend Volusia's funeral, weighing the effects Volusia and Janey Louise have had on her life. Cox favors ambivalence and resists sentimentality in describing the dynamics of the girls' friendship. Over their mothers' objections, Janey Louise and Evie girlishly insist on sharing a bedroom, and at night they talk about their experiences. Within the confines of the home, at least, segregation can be defied; in the dark, race and class differences can dissolve. But in public, racism strains their relationship: After Janey Louise has been humiliated at a fancy department store, Evie promises to stick by her the next time. " Sometimes, when I hold my breath,' Janey Louise spoke to the yard and the trees, I can hold it until I am gone. I can leave my body and not be in it . . . You are my best friend,' Janey Louise said to the yard." Their relationship mirrors that of their mothers, who, despite mutual dependence and emotional support, outwardly conform to expectations: When society ladies visit for a bridge game, Volusia must wear a maid's uniform.

But the novel's major strength is its subtle exploration of the effects their fathers' absence has on these girls. Before he left, Evie's father, a research biologist, encouraged her to observe nature, "to look past the reflection on the water, into the mud where there was movement . . . to be startled by the life hidden there." Though she continues to study, her father's departure robs Evie of a sense of entitlement that came from his complex understanding of the ordinary world and willingness to share it with her.

She reaches out to Janey Louise, who, though she treasures a photo of her deceased father, remains reticent about his background and what he meant to her: To be so forthcoming would unravel the privacy with which she and her mother shield themselves from emotional exploitation by their white employers. It's refreshing, when pundits are obsessed with how the lack of a male parent can turn boys effeminate or criminal, to gain a sense of the different types of power that fathers give their daughters.

But this credible, deeply imagined world that Cox has constructed falters and collapses when she tries to write about the civil rights movement. It's as if she's overwhelmed by the historical enormity of the subject, and feels compelled to hurry the plot along: to get these characters to participate in something important, to live up to their times. Soon, NAACP organizers "called meetings in churches and private homes in the colored part of town. One man's car was set on fire, but the meetings continued. We heard wild talk about a movement to integrate Mercy High School, but no one believed it would ever happen. The year was 1953." This kind of flat writing appears more and more frequently, until an act of racial and sexual terror nearly pulls the two friends apart. Cox then glosses over the years from the mid-'50s to the late '70s, at which point cheap plot machinations (the murder of the town's leading white citizen, a mysterious teenager's identity revealed, a rapist unmasked, and - yes - a climactic courtroom scene) accrue - all at the expense of a vivid description of how political and social changes affected these now-grown women.

Perhaps because we often see the black-freedom movement in terms of the grand sweep of history, it's difficult to try to imagine how people's feelings and relationships changed (or didn't) at a micro level. But for a novelist not to make that effort is a failure of nerve.

©Newsday, Inc., 1997