After reading Eric Charles May's Bedrock Faith, you may well feel like you've lived the whole of your life in Parkland, the South Side Chicago neighborhood where this promising but uneven debut novel is set, circa 1993. Parkland is a tight-knit, god-fearing community, one where nothing goes unnoticed and everyone's lives are interconnected and in many cases have been for generations.
There is Mrs. Motley, a widowed librarian, who lives in a grand old home—the "house her grandfather had built, and where she'd been raised, and where she'd raised her own children, and where her parents and husband had taken their last breaths." Mrs. Motley has two suitors—Mr. McTeer, a widower and veteran, and Vernon Paiger, a local politician. There are the Davenports, who have a teenage daughter, Delphina, and host neighborhood-association meetings. Erma Smedley is the neighborhood siren. There are also the Powells and the Hicks. The cast of characters is sprawling, at times overwhelmingly so. It can be difficult to keep track of some of the lesser characters, though May does a fine job of drawing the major characters as distinct, engaging personalities.
All is well in this quiet, middle-class neighborhood, where residents take pride in their fine homes and the lives they have made for themselves, until Stew Pot Reeves, the bad boy of the block, returns after fourteen years in prison. Though he once terrorized Parkland, Stew Pot claims that he is a changed man. He found God while in prison. He moves back in with his mother and appoints himself as the neighborhood's moral guardian, trying to bring the community "into the light." Immediately, the neighbors panic, worrying that Stew Pot will be up to his old ways—arson, vandalism, violence. The neighborhood association convenes to strategize about what to do. "If Stew Pot has had a religious awakening," Mr. Davenport states, "then all I can say is, hallelujah. However, it would be foolish, given his past, to not be ready with a plan in case he starts cutting up again."
Stew Pot does bring more disruption, even tragedy, but this time he does so by condemning what he sees as his neighbors' moral failures, claiming to be in the service of God. He drives Erma out of the neighborhood after revealing she is a lesbian. He begins distributing a newsletter, The Burning Bush, where he condemns his neighbors for a variety of sins and spiritual infractions. In the first installment, Stew Pot's target is the elderly Mr. McTeer, who has written a love poem about Mrs. Motley. Later, Stew Pot photocopies pages from Delphina's diary, and reveals secrets that threaten the Davenports' marriage. When a fire burns down Mrs. Motley's home, Stew Pot is the main suspect, though there is far more to the story.
Bedrock Faith is a strong, engaging novel—full of warmth and charm and honesty. I was quickly and deeply invested in knowing what would happen next, and I grew quite fond of many of the characters because May allows the reader to know them so well.
The novel exudes an old-fashioned sensibility in word and deed. The writing is dense and elaborate, reminiscent of Edith Wharton and Henry James. The book may take place in 1993, but the people of Parkland still believe in manners and keeping up appearances. They go to church and respect their elders. They keep their lawns neat and their homes proper. And, of course, they have secrets, nothing too terrible, but certainly the kinds of secrets that can upset the delicate balance of a community like Parkland.
It was particularly refreshing to see a novel focusing on the black middle class, and on older men and women, who are, all too often, neglected in contemporary ficiton. Mrs. Motley and Mr. McTeer and the Davenports and the Powells and the Hicks are the beating heart of the novel, its center of gravity.
Unfortunately, Bedrock Faith tries to be too many different things at once—a charming and warm novel of manners, a juicy soap opera, an intriguing mystery, a commentary on unchecked evangelism. The novel also suffers from an ungainly structure: There are eleven "books," further divided into chapters—most no longer than three pages—each with a heading that offers a teaser about the chapter's contents. There are chapters given over to lengthy summaries of neighborhood gossip, installments of Stew Pot's The Burning Bush, and one chapter listing thirteen rumors about Mrs. Motley's house burning down.
On the one hand, this structure lends the novel a gripping soap-opera quality, allowing the book to move effortlessly from one melodramatic scene to the next. But at times the architecture becomes too elaborate for its own good. Then there are the details that just don't seem credible, like how Stew Pot gains most of his information illegally, yet remains free.
But by the end, the novel remembers its center of gravity. Mrs. Motley, fresh from a visit with her son, his fiancée, and their daughter, realizes that she wants to find, "love without reservation." It is here that the novel's true purpose is elegantly revealed. We all want to love and be loved without reservation, and Bedrock Faith, through the story Eric Charles May tells so confidently, makes the reader believe that love without reservation may well be possible for all of us, whether we are in the light or not.
Roxane Gay's novel An Untamed State will be published by Grove Press in May, and her essay collection Bad Feminist will be published by HarperPerennial in August.