Pleasantville takes electoral politics to trial

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When Dennis Lehane collaborated with HarperCollins to create an eponymous imprint, his first selection for Dennis Lehane Books was Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2012). As with Lehane’s Bostonian novels, Locke’s story about a Louisiana plantation manager’s extralegal investigation of a murdered woman found on the property is one in which place is as much a character as people. Although her most recent novel, Pleasantville (2015), is published under Harper Perennial, Locke once again personifies the South as Lehane does Boston, using an isolated crime to deconstruct the institutions — familial, racial, legal, social, and political — that undergird community infrastructure.

Locke’s Pleasantville, an historically black Houston neighborhood formed in the 1950s, is positioned between two decisive political events: an impending runoff election for the Houston mayor’s office and a class action lawsuit of Pleasantville v. ProFerma Labs represented by lawyer Jay Porter. Fifteen years after his introduction in Locke’s debut novel Black Water Rising (2009), Jay is struggling to resume his law practice and raise his two children while coming to terms with his wife’s death. After Alicia Nowell, a teenage campaign worker is abducted and murdered, Jay becomes even more overburdened, tasked with defending the obvious fall guy, Neal Hathorne, the campaign manager and nephew of mayoral candidate Axel Hathorne and grandson of self-appointed “mayor of Pleasantville” Sam Hathorne. For both Jay and the reader, Neal’s innocence is unquestionable, and thus Pleasantville’s real mystery is whether a candidate or a corporation aims to profit from this Machiavellian frame and the subsequent mockery of a trial.

As with Lehane’s Mystic River, Locke could have drafted the single story line of a murdered girl and produced a fine crime novel. In both novels, however, an expanded, and thus enriched, scope portrays not only the micro consequences of such a senseless tragedy, as grieving parents and shocked neighbors attempt to process the events, but also the macro deterioration of an illusory American Dream. For Locke, this fiction is of a representative, transparent body politic, which she intricately analyzes and dissects in the bureaucratic machinations that exploit a young woman’s death and unapologetically implicate an innocent man.

That these events occur in Pleasantville is significant, as the neighborhood has proven in real-life elections that one precinct of educated and engaged black voters can decide, or potentially disrupt, state politics. The first half of the novel is slow to develop, a consequence of foundational chapters that provide a necessary understanding of the municipal forces that formed Pleasantville, from segregation to integration to black activism against industrial encroach, thereby making it such a determinative electoral precinct. In the novel’s shocking last quarter, however, Locke probes the disconcerting possibilities of how far-reaching the corruption of a single voting district can be.

While Thoreau preached civil disobedience as the people’s empowerment against such corruption, current American political movements that protest systematic inequalities, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, seem to have gained little traction in redressing injustices. Perhaps more effective, then, is a course of civic disillusionment that questions a suspect political process. Pleasantville does so by exposing the calculated cronyism that privileges corporations at the expense of citizens and communities, and is thus an exceptionally relevant read for the current election year.

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