Lightening Men by Thomas Mullen
This is Mullen’s fifth novel, and a real beauty. Set in 1950’s Atlanta, it deals with the violent racism that permeated the entire society, and is very relevant today as neo-Nazism and white supremacism rear their ugly heads in the most public way in the USA.
There are a number of central characters and we are invited to view the world through their eyes. We have Rake, the white cop who is not racist but is married into a family that are. Rake struggles to balance his life in a community that distrusts and abhors blacks, with his inert decency and desire to reach out to his fellow men, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Then we have both Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith who are members of Atlanta’s new black police precinct. Boggs is well educated and from a strongly middle class background, whereas Smith is from the ghetto. They make for a strange but engaging pair as they try desperately to prevent drugs from destroying their community, all the while trying to stay on the right side of the many racists within the Atlanta department.
Boggs is engaged to Julie, an unmarried black mother of one small boy. Julie has a past that Boggs is still learning about. Her ex has just been released from prison and is headed her way. Boggs’ father, a reverend, is extremely dissatisfied with his son’s choice of partner, as we see the bigotry within the black community exposed as being a smaller reflection of that within the white.
Smith’s pregnant sister and her husband have just moved into an area long regarded as whites only. Trouble arises in the form a community action group who want the black family to leave. There is also the Klan who are never far away. The table-cloth wearing imbeciles are also under pressure locally from the Columbians, a neo-Nazi group that feels that the Kluxers have lost their way and are too concerned with making money. The Colombians want a war of purity. They want black blood on white streets.
(hard to believe that so many people, who would have regarded themselves as moderate, were present at a spectacle such as this lynching of two black men)
Rakes idiotic, racist brother-in-law, Dale is mixed up with both far-right groups, much to the dismay of the conscientious cop. If Dale was around today, he would probably be sucking Richard Spencer’s knob when requested. He would want Donald Trump to watch.
This is a great novel. It is gripping from the get-go. The pace is relentless. The characters are consistent and interesting, even (and perhaps especially) the flawed ones. The plot is strong and twists and turns nicely to stop from being predictable. The settings are intriguing. The social and political commentary is bang-on. The ending is worth waiting for.
There are so many aspects to society in Atlanta at that time, that it is amazing to see how Mullen has managed to incorporate all of them tidily in one story. It is the mark of a great writer that he has created a fiction that reads as fact, and touches upon social issues that are often overlooked,or over-shadowed by the bigger picture of racism and segregation. To have been black at that time in Georgia, must have been a truly tough station. I wonder how much has really changed?
However, Lightening Men is not a critique of white people in Atlanta. It is a comment upon all of society at that time. Both black and white are portrayed as both good and bad. Everyone is open to criticism in this novel and no one is presented as perfect. That’s as it should be, as no one is. Incidentally, the title comes from the lightening bolt symbol that the Nazi SS had on their uniforms. The similarity between the Nazis and the white supremacists is striking, then as it is today.
There is plenty of action in Lightening Men. Feminist issues are broached and tough women abound, made that way by the poor conduct of men. Bigotry, religion, sexism, class warfare, property theft, local economics and the dishonesty associated, sex, drugs, great violence and, of course, greed, all feature in this tome (where would Capitalist Central be without greed?).
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended now more than ever. You will not want to put this book down (unless it’s to punch the head off a racist).