Standing at the Crossroads by Charles Davis, published by The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, is a fine piece of writing, and it’s hard to think of a more timely and haunting fictional tale on the savagery of Islamic zealotry as it bleeds across the killing fields of Sudan, though the broad theme of Davis’ novella would explore the mindset of any “ism,” historical or contemporary, taken to extremes.
Lyrical in its unfolding as a love story between a poor African collector of books who tells this tale, and a privileged white American do-gooder activist, as they flee vengeful Warriors of God tracking them across an inhospitable desert, Standing at the Crossroads is ultimately a love story about books and reading, which is as much to say that it is a celebration of Western values of skepticism, ambiguity and critical intelligence.
The narrator, known as The Story Man, has dark skin but his mind is pale, it is said, because of all the Western literature he reads and accumulates in his heart and soul. White people call him The Barefoot Librarian, though he has never been barefoot, even when he spent his days walking from village to village, picking up books, until the war got “big” again. Walking, he observes, is not indulged in by men “who dream of immortality.” It’s too earthbound for those who believe they have a direct and immediate path to Paradise.
The Story Man allows as how he sounds formal, pedantic, 19th century. “Call me Ishmael,” he says in the second line of the book. The first line is “OK, let’s go, please,” a plea that is repeated halfway through the book when the present tense has been resumed, and the narrator, the woman who flees with him along with a lost child they find,, the sole survivor of a village raid, are “standing at the crossroads,” hemmed in by a murderous posse of fanatics.
The first half of the book looks back to when the narrator met “Miss Kate” in a marketplace. He had been asking after books when Warriors of God rode up menacing her, then him. He intervened by confounding them with a recitation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” They were dumbfounded, assuming that the nonsense words were some kind of magical invocation. Literature can enlighten, console, defy, save. “I like words and the play we make with them,” he says, “because they resist the withering regulation of small minds, are wayward and intricate, full of unpredictable patterns, like life itself.” The Warriors, however, know only absolutes: “They have guns in their hands and God in their hearts.”
The Warriors’ leader, who hears about the marketplace fiasco, is incensed. A boyhood former friend of The Story Man, from the orphanage, he becomes monomanically intent on destroying The Story Man and all he stands for, in addition, of course, to killing the woman., any woman, viciously, with slow delight. The Story Man, Kate and child escape to the desert, which, like the sea, is a “hostile” immensity “against which man is measured and made small,” a wilderness “that can be exploited and polluted but not tamed.” Kate is intent on making it to a town where she can publish atrocity photos to prick the world’s conscience. Facts matter, she says. The Story Man’s take is that “stories get nearer to the truth” than facts. They argue about the importance of each claim. His faith is in books (he carries a beat-up copy of Moby Dick in his knapsack), hers in protest.
The terrible conclusion is loaded with irony. Africans are always written out of their own story, victims on the sidelines, never major players, The Story Man says (at the end the reader learns for whom his words are intended). His own account – and Davis’s beautifully written tale -- proves the force of this observation, but the ultimate triumph of fictional narrative.
Standing at the Crossroads by Charles Davis. The Permanent Press, $26.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace