Topping the list of favorites from many reaches of the book reviewing universe this year has been “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters. This reviewer read it patiently and casually, much like its narration unfolds its story, but found only the occasional high point in what was overall an over-plotted and minimally well-characterized book, and at best a work highly and openly derivative of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel “Invisible Man.”
Winters’ book is about the struggle and carelessness of identity, the burdening and fallacious necessity of white savior-hood, and the abomination of racial-based discrimination, but never grapples with these issues to a point of deep interest or thought. It references directly “Invisible Man” with such descriptions of self as, “an invisible man moving through the darkness,” but whose originality it ultimately lacks. Winters has spoken of the influence of Ellison, but to even cite it is a little too flattering for this reviewer.
Right off the bat, there’s one thing you need to know about this book: the Civil War never happened. That’s right. No secession, no Confederacy, no war. And there’s no trace of Lincoln whatsoever; he got assassinated before his presidency even began. The Underground Airlines referred to in the title are a loosely organized group of slave liberators, a kind of modern improvement on the Underground Railroad. A series of euphemisms, like much of our world is covered in, is used to describe the new slaveholding world as “It is remarkable, when you consider it,” according to Victor, the novel’s sketchy protagonist, “all the complicated works we construct to avoid anything that might disturb us or cause us pain.”
Born a slave, in the Southern Hard Four states, where slavery still exists, Victor escapes at a young age, but is found and is offered a deal: work as a bounty hunter returning other escaped slaves or be brought back to the South. He chooses the former and so begins his career in “soul-snatching,” reporting to a mysterious U.S. Marshall named only Mr. Bridge. In order to fulfill his new role, he must betray his race, betray his own beliefs, betray his soul. In short, he must work against his own experience and conscience. “This was my life,” he says. “this was my destiny – to be someone’s tool. Someone or other.”
Interspersed with the events of the novel are Victor’s painful remembrances of slave life as he observes, “what the slave wants but can never happen is not only freedom from the chains but also from their memory.” In other words, in a society that dehumanizes a part of its population, how is identity found and made outside of such a system? There is a cynical, yet sometimes sensitive attitude displayed by such of Victor’s thoughts, like, “shit does not change. It will never change.”
But what does it really say about the black experience? There’s a scene where Victor pleads to a black woman to help him, puppy dog eyes, on one of his cases, and the two flirt and canoodle like any two modern people might do. The inadequate black male complex is briefly explored through scenes like this, always struggling for his legitimacy, but never wanting to lose his identity. There are also the customary references to the kind of casual abolitionism Victor labels as white people ameliorating their guilt through the white savior complex of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” for example. This reviewer believes the latter book is far more than that, but his point is well made.
Overall, this lackluster mystery/detective novel charts a path all too easy for a bounty hunter/detective where form is concerned. Like another scene, early on where he meets up, for no very good reason at all, with a white, struggling single mother and her mixed child, Lionel. This relationship is used for Victor’s benefit later on, but it’s mute, stale, yet also outlandish, and with less plotting to hammer home its themes, could easily have been discarded for the sake of time spent more on the kind of points the novel needs to make.
There was a minor controversy upon its publication that the white writer Winters could tackle the black experience in America, but there’s nothing irrational about a white man writing about a black man’s experience. On the human level, one can sympathize with the uniqueness of another’s condition in various ways, even through racial boundaries, as was done by William Faulkner.
Does the reader sympathize with Victor? On a human level, possibly, but throughout the scale of the whole book, no, simply because its backdrop is too unrealistic. One of the few strong moments of characterization occur when Victor confesses, “I was a monster, but way down underneath I was good…in the buried parts of me are good things.” Victor is an Everyman until you get to the part about him being a bounty hunter. But for a book so concerned with modern-day experiences, it perhaps flaunts what it’s trying to do in the first place with so many passages of Victor doing day-to-day work, and social commentary held back for other times, of when it comes across at all.
When he finally gets to the South he finds a world that, to the reader, harkens back to the bygone age of the Antebellum period. Says Victor, “It was as if I had arrived not just in another part of the country but in another part of the century. Men in fedora hats and mustaches, ladies in short-sleeve flower-pattern dresses pushing big perambulators, smiling. Everybody smiling. The gentle ting-a-ting of welcome bells as these gentlefolk pushed into stores under multi-colored awnings that fluttered in the wind. Folks tipping their hats, holding the door for one another as they went in and out of a diner called the Cotyledon Cafe, a tidy little freestanding pink building with a window box full of peonies along its front glass and a sign with proud curly-cursive lettering: THIS IS A PREJUDICED ESTABLISHMENT.”
Eventually, “Underground Airlines,” loses its main storyline in a mash of over-plotting, bored narration, and completely uncalled for twisting, and though we can’t just give praise for anyone writing a novel about the American black experience, kudos to another person trying to do it. This review is correspondingly negative, but to those wishing to review a kind of ode to “Invisible Man” this might be a useful place to start.
By Matthew C. Brock