By Joe Martin Ph.D. '72
Novello Festival Press, 2001.
This is the first novel by Joe Martin, a native of Winnsboro, South Carolina, and what a novel it is. Billed as a coming-of-age story, Fire in the Rock is a provocative and thoughtful account of one man's struggle to make sense of both his past and present, at a time when racial politics compromised the reality and the fantasy of small-town Southern life.
The story begins in the summer of 1956. Much of the action takes place at the Rocks, the area surrounding an abandoned rock quarry. Bo--hired by his church to oversee the construction of a camp at the Rocks--meets Pollo and Mae Maude, his summer companions, at the country store. The three teenagers charge around in Bo's pick-up truck, drinking Cokes and sneaking off to skinny-dip in the quarry. But this is no ordinary trio. Bo, the "city boy," is the son of a white Presbyterian preacher. Mae Maude, a daring beauty, is the daughter of the local landowner. And Pollo is the darling of the "settlement," where the black labor force that had hauled the granite from the quarry lived, eking out an existence on Mae Maude's father's land, once the quarry company left town.
Though Mae Maude provides enough sexual tension to keep the boys on their toes, it's Pollo who emerges as the star. Pollo is refreshingly original, oblivious to the social norms that keep Bo in check and encourage Mae Maude to take risks. Though naïve in the ways of the world, Pollo is no stranger to white folks, due to his unusual relationship with an elderly white woman named Delphine Templeton. Under Miss Templeton's tutelage, by the summer of '56 Pollo had blossomed into a mini-Renaissance man: Not only is he sharper and more creative than Bo, but he's infinitely more comfortable in his own skin.
Bo finds much to admire in Pollo, from his fine physique to his storytelling, but he is never able to abandon a sense of superiority over his friend. He is shocked to find that Pollo, so well-versed in Greek mythology, geography, and other disciplines, thinks all the black people in the world lived in the settlement; he's incredulous when Pollo admits he has never heard of Tarzan, or seen a picture show. Pollo's ignorance about such "obvious" things is just one manifestation of the true gap between the boys, a gap Bo never really grasps.
Fortunately, Bo doesn't purport to have all the answers. Conflicted on one hand over having to keep his friendship with Pollo a secret from his own family, and frustrated on the other by having to make sure not to offend "colored" people, Bo is as unsure as any teenager caught up in the Jim Crow South should be. Nevertheless, Bo and Pollo genuinely enjoy each other's company and manage to pass a number of friendship benchmarks before summer's end.
The end of every summer usually forces a natural break in friendships. But Bo, Pollo, and Mae Maude's friendship doesn't just peter out, it ends with an explosion that rips the teenagers from their bubble at the Rocks and punishes them for their transgressions. Bo conveniently forgets the summer, unaware that tensions underlying its ugly end will come back to haunt him years later: "The summer I spent in the country dropped from my mind as if it had been the trunk of some fallen tree, floating waterlogged for a time below the surface of the lake, then sliding away to the bottom without any warning.... With a teenager's attention to the surface of life, I saw no ripples, heard no splash, took no notice of the loss.... I don't even remember forgetting it."
Ten years later Bo, pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Duke, is reunited with Pollo, who has returned to the Rocks as a minister. Pollo--ever clever--had become a magnet for Ku Klux Klan fury. The phone at this church--the first phone in the settlement--was tapped by the local deputy sheriff; he was beaten up and thrown in jail. He'd even lost the support of the settlement elders. "We get along by going along," one of them tells him. "Been doing that for some time. It is not your job to upset all that.... You stick to preaching."
When Bo intervenes to help, he begins to piece together what really happened that summer and, in so doing, discovers the underside of the South he thought he knew. He learns that a local black college with connections to the settlement had been burned to the ground by the Klan. He learns that the most dangerous racists of his world go unpunished--they simply change out of their sheets and into suits and police uniforms. The deeper Bo digs, the more disturbing the facts become. But by uncovering the truth, he and Pollo encourage the settlement to stand up for itself and to defy those who expect it to be forever trapped as a backwater in white-washed history.
Once Bo moves beyond "the teenager's attention to the surface of life," Fire in the Rock becomes a page turner as, one by one, local mysteries unfurl. The story is all the more impressive given the author's physical struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Left completely paralyzed, Martin finished the book with the aid of an eye-gaze computer, which makes the telling of the tale as remarkable as the tale itself. Fire in the Rock has the staying power of a classic.
Guckenberger '93 is the former fiction editor of Atlantic Unbound, the online journal of The Atlantic Monthly.