Her second novel, first published in 1952, This Crooked Way, is the favorite one of Elizabeth Spencer, who was born in 1921 in Carrollton, Mississippi, and just published a new book this year, It focuses (from various aspects) on Amos Dudley, the son of the owner of a small-time and very old-fashioned store in Yocona, a fictional town (but real river) in the Mississippi hills. After a revival meeting and nearly drowning, the young Dudley has a mystic experience heavily inflected by the story of Jacob’s ladder and believes he makes direct contact with God. Like Jacob, Dudley bargains with God to get what he wants.
With luck at cards, he obtains a tract of 600 acres of land in the Delta, “a swampy region only made available for farming when the land is drained and cleared and mosquitoes subdued” (a process which Spencer grew up hearing about). In addition to believing he had God on his side, Dudley works very hard and has the additional advantage of the presence of a woman, Thelma Dubard, whom his Negro workers consider a witch.
In addition to successful timber and cotton business, Dudley had set his eye on a damsel from a more socially prominent (older money) hill family, Ary Morgan on whom he sires a son and a daughter – and a second embryonic son lost before birth. A brash young man named Joe Ferguson shows up, claiming to be the son by Dudley of Thelma Dubard, who was pregnant when she left Dudley.
Though lacking the religious fervor of Amos Dudley, the rise of the Snopes family in William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished and The Hamlet somewhat prefigures that of Amos Dudley, and Faulkner also pioneered the alternation of narrative voices, especially in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Though the five parts (the first in third-person narration) are not chronological, they seem to me more straightforward than most sentences in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
In a 1990 Spencer explained her structuring of the book thus: “I meant the narratives to be as crooked as Amos Dudley’s life. I began with an omniscient third-person piece, and then developed it through a series of accusations that this man had to answer because he was living so within the closed circle of his own beliefs, his own drives. I brought the three people [a friend from Yocona, a niece who lived at Dudley for some time during her childhood, and his wife, Ary] who had the most to make him answer for. I hoped with each to advance the story even though not along a straight line. Then the last part was his coming around, his recovery, part of which is our discovery of his voice-his finally speaking for himself.”(She also recalled that once she started writing Amos’s account (which follows directly on a murder he did not commit), it came pouring out in a single night.) Paradoxically, Dudley’s narration is one of how he came to give up his self-obsession and rescue the surviving members of his natal family.
Especially having mentioned Faulkner’s unruly Snopes clan, I should make clear that Amos Dudley is not “crooked” in the sense of shady-to-illegal business practices. He is warped by ambition and self-righteousness and resentment of the airs of his in-laws, not a crook.
I got a little impatient with Ary’s chapter (by far the longest), though not with her character and best liked the one by Dolly (resembling one of Spencer’s great short stories), though she is a peripheral character to the story of Amos Dudley’s lifework and sort of redemption.
IMHO, Spencer’s next novel, The Voice at the Back Door (1956), is her masterpiece. It is also set in Mississippi, focusing not on one self-made man but on a whole town (and racism) though both books have some mosaic manner of narration. Set on the Gulf Coast and involving a displaced professor and his conniving (albeit cuckolded) rival, there are resonances of the monomania and mysticism of Amos Dudley (and the murder and the redemption) in Spencer’s 1984 novel The Salt Line. Her work deserves to be much better known and more celebrated than it is.