Author: Glenn Taylor

2010, Ecco

Filed under: Literary, Historical

The Marrowbone Marble Company is a sprawling, epic novel that spans nearly thirty years, following a man named Ledford as he fights in World War II, raises a family, builds a marble factory with his own hands, and, through it all, fights against racism. Taylor effortlessly constructs a detailed, nuanced world, and a host of characters both stoic and relatable. He also excels at pacing a narrative with such a long story window—each chapter is titled after a month, like “December, 1941,” and he often skips years at a time, but the result feels natural and fluid.

The problems here are more philosophical than technical. If you had to sum up Marrowbone‘s subject matter in one word, it would be: race. The titular marble company isn’t just a company, it’s also a racial safe haven where, in 1949 West Virginia, blacks and whites live and work together in equality and harmony.

Despite loud, sometimes violent protests from nearly everyone around him, Ledford (who is white) insists on racial equality in his business and his life. That’s well and good, if a bit simplistic, but the results stretch believability, to say the least. The way the sides are drawn up is reductive: everybody who’s in favor of Marrowbone (which becomes synonymous with non-discrimination and civil rights) is good and decent; everybody opposed is cowardly, evil, and slimy.

In the end, Marrowbone is more of an exercise in historical race-relations wish-fulfillment than a real drama. That keeps it from being the truly great novel it could’ve been, but it’s still captivating and certainly worth reading.

Taylor’s research is impeccable, and, for the most part, he doesn’t shy away from the nooks and crannies of the world he creates. He’s authoritative and confident when writing about horse racing and going to war, having dysentery and getting married, how to box and how to make a marble.

He creates nuanced characters (to an extent), and believable hardscrabble wilderness. There’s a tinge of the surreal or the fanciful, as well, and a hard, confident, muscular narrative voice:

A dwarf in maroon slacks swung open the factory’s service gate. Mack eased the big truck through. The sign on the fence pictured a smiling red marble, backgrounded by the silhouettes of skinny buildings and chimney stacks. This was Marble City.

Mack nodded to the little man, a gesture that was not reciprocated. Instead, the man frowned and eyeballed Mack all the way through the gate. Even ten yards in, when Mack checked his sideview mirror, he had his stink-eye locked in.

That voice can occasionally dip into dullness, especially in the first third of the novel, but Taylor lays his plot well, and the payoffs are well worth a few waits. The real problem comes when that tinge of surrealism begins to tip into unrealism, and when our heroes are wholly protected from the realities of racist America.

For example, Mack, the first black person Ledford takes in, gets fired from his job because a white supremacist takes over the plant. That’s just about as far as the race-hate sadism goes in Marrowbone. Mack doesn’t get beat up, or tortured, or run out of town. He just gets fired.

Taylor loves his characters, that’s clear. He loves them so much that he can’t bear to make anything really bad happen to them. There are a precious few times when Taylor does let something bad happen—and those moments are without a doubt the novel’s most electrifying.

Unfortunately, those moments are also very rare. For decades, while Ledford and Mack integrate schools, and campaign against crooked politicians, and basically create a race-equal commune in the midst of a starkly segregated rural area, nothing bad happens to them. I mean, people call them names, but nothing happens to disturb the idyllic sanctity of Marrowbone.

In addition, all the bad guys get their just desserts, and all the good guys get along and love each other, and agree on almost everything. The philosophy of nearly every Marrowbone citizen can be summed up by the words of Mack’s young son, who gives a bit of an impromptu sermon during the first service at the church they build. Harold says:

“I think God made all people good and then some of em get taught bad.”

This is the novel’s spine; all the good guys live by it, all the bad guys think it foolish.

In a certain light, there are worse things than having starkly drawn teams. In practice, all that does is change the equation: despite the tone and voice, this is not a realistic novel, it’s a fairy tale (albeit it one that’s as fun as any guilty pleasure).

But, at the same time, this is 2010. Race is more complicated than this, and it deserves more than a revisionist historical novel in which a noble, perfect white man saves and embraces a handful of black people for no real reason.

On every other level, this is a very good novel, and Taylor is certainly a writer to watch. Hopefully, his next book will stare a little more fearlessly into the abyss.

Similar reads: In style, Serena, by Ron Rash. In subject matter, The Shawshank Redemption (the movie, I haven’t read the book).