My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The theory of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”might have been a rule of thumb in the Wild West, but that was anathema to Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has become an epoch-defining classic in the canon of American literature.With her restive independent spirit that knew no compromise with tampered artistic sensibilities, Lee labored and waited until she found satisfactorily truthful narratives on her own, no matter how much time it would take. This journalistic trait of authorship combined with intellectual conscience could have been a reason that Lee, despite criticism of being a one-hit wonder, chose not to chase successive fame and discontinued what might have been her next best oeuvre called The Reverend. Casey Cep discovers Lee’s unfinished work and brings it to life and offers an unbiased portrait of one of the greatest American writers in this ambitious Furious Hours.
Furious Hours is composed of three parts: Reverend Willie Maxwell, Attorney Tom Radney, and Harper Lee. Reverend Maxwell was a black provincial Baptist preacher accused of killing five of his family members allegedly by means of Voodoo magic for insurance money in the 1970s. Into this courtroom drama entered a clever and magnanimous Alabaman lawyer named Tom Radney, who helped the reverend to be acquitted of the murder charge, but later found himself defending the killer of his former client. It was an irony of Fate, tragedy and comedy of a drama called life. The trial of the murder of the reverend was also a reprisal of the courtroom drama of To Kill a Mockingbird, where a black dependent was represented by a liberal white attorney. This real-life scenario in her beloved native Alabama piqued Harper Lee’s curiosity, and she decided to write a book called “The Reverend” by attending the trial herself. Cep introduces the elements of the trial in the discourse of the backgrounds of the trial as though she traveled back to the time and witnessed it all like an intelligent, observant time traveler.
Although Furious Hours is primarily about the forgotten case of the Reverend that was something of an OJ trial of the day in the context of regarding a black defendant and white legal bureaucracy, its linchpin behind the facade of the drama is Harper Lee, who thrived at the expense of Nella Harper Lee, an ambitious intelligent writer who moved from a big house in Alabama to a rent-controlled apartment in the New York City to pursue a literary career. It seems to me that Lee was disillusioned with the glamor of the city literati scene that looked priggish and stuffy. Her peers dismissed her book as a one-hit wonder and criticized it for being a lesser of serious literature. Notwithstanding this asinine and supercilious criticism, Lee did not conform to public demand of the next bestseller by declaring she had “said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Lee was in fact a writer who wanted to write a book with universal themes of human life, not bound by a vocation of regional specialty of “Southern” cultural backgrounds littered with sinful racism. She was a writer struggling to live up to her literary principle and personal conviction that her contemporaries did not appreciate. Maybe that’s why Cep introduces Lee in the last of the three parts of the book in the sense that a fashion designer always walks the runaway last in a fashion show escorted and applauded by models, staff, and spectators.
Furious Hours is a fine act of literary ventriloquism fused with Lee’s story-telling voice in Cep’s own narrative, which results in this ingenious creative nonfiction. It is a wonderful collaboration of two writers, a predecessor and a successor, bound by the magic of literature, transcendent of time and space, just as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Grand Horse” was superbly completed by Nina Akamu centuries later. This book will have more admirers of Harper Lee’s literature and new admirers of Cep’s feat of narrative skills that grasp the attention of the reader cap-a-pie.