Book Review: Evil Never Sleeps: Tales of Light and Darkness
Publication Date: Apr 19, 2019
List Price: $13.99
Format: Paperback, 234 pages
Imprint: Indigo Ink
Publisher: Indigo Ink
Parent Company: Indigo Ink
Borrow from Library
Book Reviewed by Andre Seewood
If the short story is a lost art, then you wouldn’t know it from reading Robert Fleming’s latest collection of story stories, Evil Never Sleeps: Tales of Light and Darkness. Fleming’s swift descriptive sentences sketch the rich details of setting, circumstance, and actions like the rapid brushstrokes of an impressionist artist bringing to life disparate time periods, landscapes, jazz clubs, the familiar faces of Hollywood starlets, American military occupations, mysterious extraterrestrial encounters, and racial antagonisms with the clarity, honesty, and unsettling irony of which only great hindsight can give license. Taken together, the 16 short stories weave a complex and thoroughly engaging tapestry of post-World War 2 American life from competing standpoints of race, gender, class, and profession. While reading each different facet of this world of the distant and recent past, I was reminded of a profound complaint expressed by historian James W. Loewen in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Loewen opined that, “Textbooks should show history as contingent, affected by the power of ideas and individuals.”i Fleming, by contrast, does what no history textbook can do by revealing these well known and not so well known facets of recent history that have been affected by the ideas and power of individuals, many of whom happen to be African-American.
Whether it’s a jook-joint ensconced deep in the backwaters of the Mississippi Delta, Black military soldiers in 1950 American-occupied Japan, a terse discussion between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Fleming deftly dramatizes history’s contingencies from decidedly non-dominant (read: White) points-of-view and it’s an enriching experience in part because of the profound intimacy through which he brings us into contact with his characters. Take for example, what in my opinion is the centerpiece short story of the collection, “Ask Her,” which tells the gripping tale of a Christian White woman’s journey to murder an abortionist. It is not only a stunning portrait of the hypocrisy of Right-To-Life zealotry, but in the most economical use of prose Fleming allows the reader to discern the latticework of moral, religious, and philosophical contradictions that creates, supports, and compels an act of brutal terrorism by a naïve White woman who sincerely believes that,” We are Lost.”(114) Both the visceral power of this story and others along with the title of the entire collection, Evil Never Sleeps: Tales of Light and Darkness, brings to mind many of the lessons learned in sociologist Roy F. Baumeister’s work, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Baumeister concludes that, “Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil… Evil is but rarely found in the perpetrator’s own self image.”ii But most importantly as it relates to Fleming’s story, “Ask Her,” Baumeister asserts that, “Idealism leads to evil primarily because good, desirable ends provide justification for violent or oppressive means.”iii And while, “Ask Her,” could possibly be considered the darkest of the tales where one White woman’s ideals lead her to commit an act of evil as God’s Will, there are other stories that capture the glorious times of a lost Jazz age of nightclubs, fast women, and romantic, but desperate losers who are willing to risk it all for love, even while knowing that the future has a bad ending waiting for them.
Consider the laconically erotic idyll in the story, “If It Makes You Happy.” Never has the tale of a lovestruck prison guard who helps a sexy woman prisoner with a dark past escape out of prison been so convincingly told in so few pages. More than just, “Yet another Black man bamboozled by lust and a hard-on,” (192) this story of outlaw lovers on the run in Mexico under, “an Aztec night with infinite possibilities,” (199) captures the fatalism of the best Hollywood film noirs. When the femme fatale in this little dozy questions her new Prince Charming’s commitment he replies half heartedly,“ No problem, sweetheart. It’s all good. I’m in this to the limit, to the end. You and me.” (ibid) His answer echoes and yet deeply contrasts with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) mantra,“ Straight down the line,” in Billy Wilder’s film of a loveable loser and a no-good woman, Double Indemnity (1944).
The weakest tales in the collection, and I use the term “weakest” very lightly: “Mr. Robeson at The Moment” and “Summer Comes Later” are not reduced in quality by the writing, but instead by the brevity of both stories which are too engrossing and compelling and leave the reader begging for a novel length discourse of the events and circumstances. Capturing the legendary actor/activist Paul Robeson in conversation with a corrupt Black politician who is being used by the American government to get “more dirt” on Robeson is a story too rich in historical, political, and moral value for a short story no matter how skillful Fleming’s use of prose. Concomitantly, the story of journalistic intrigue in “Summer Comes Later” which is set in a Marrakesh of, “Kif peddlers. Quick fingered thieves. Burned-out torch singers,” (146) needs a satisfying resolution to all the danger and threats it conjures in the reader’s imagination.
But a story like, “Tell No One,” which recounts the travails, dalliances, and heartaches of American actress, Jean Seberg’s tragic life manages to bring the unjust contingencies of history into bittersweet clarity through the inefficacy of White liberalism, the sexual excesses of scoundrels who claimed to be Black Nationalists, and the American government’s undaunted mission to destroy the Black Power Movement. And anyone who occasionally thinks of the 6 trillion dollars (and counting) that America has spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be forced to consider the true, but unaccounted, cost of the wars in Fleming’s devastating story of a war veteran coming home in, What It Takes To Be Human.
If, evil never sleeps, then Robert Fleming has given us 16 stories that challenge and complicate Roy F. Baumeister’s assertion that, “Evil exists primarily in the eye of the beholder, especially in the eye of the victim.”iv Fleming intentionally places the reader alternately in the position of beholder and victim of evil in a stylistic technique of moral equanimity which operates primarily through his skillful and deliberate use of what in literary theory is called, the free indirect subjective. In short, the free indirect is a means of rendering a character’s thoughts without quotation marks or without dialogue with another character. By use of the free indirect Fleming can align the thoughts of the narrator, the character, and the reader in such a way that the perpetrator of evil’s self image can be glimpsed as a mirror image of our own. This is not to be confused with moral equivalency, the reader still has the privilege of knowing right from wrong, but evil itself is humanized and rendered as part of the human condition and not some force from beyond or power of an out group or marginalized figure of the other. These are indeed sixteen glimpses of the human condition that you won’t soon ever forget.
iPg. 35, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, New York: Touchstone Books. 1995.
iiPgs. 1,6. Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1999.
iiiPg. 176, ibid.
ivPg. 1, ibid