Thick with contradictions

On a bike, a kid can pedal from one world to another just by crossing the street. No signs demarcate one neighborhood from the next, but that’s OK: A child knows where the borders are, just as well as if a huge stripe were painted there.

It’s a child — 10-year-old Jeru Lamb — who observes the many dividing lines, geographic and social, that crisscross Greenville, S.C., in the early ’60s in In The Family Way (Random House, 1999), the sweet, wise and often funny second novel by Asheville author Tommy Hays.

Out riding with his best friend Roger, Jeru is half-consciously aware, as they exit their middle-class neighborhood, of the more prosperous air of Crescent Avenue. “The children who lived on this street attended Christ Church, the private Episcopal school. I sensed that they knew when we were coming and rushed inside, so as not to be seen with children of lesser streets,” observes Jeru of the hushed, moneyed quiet that blankets the neighborhood. Yet, during these years of segregation, it’s the lines that divided whites from blacks that Hays — through the eyes of Jeru — most steadily (and with unflinching honesty) records. After all, the kids from Crescent Avenue may go to Christ Church and Jeru to Donaldson Elementary, but it’s the children from Maybar, the black neighborhood abutting Donaldson, who must board a bus each day board for an elementary school across town. “It did not strike me as the least bit odd that no Negro children attended Donaldson, even though they lived next door,” says Jeru, as an adult looking back. “Sometimes we passed them walking to their bus stop … and the only thing I recall wondering was, what were they learning that we were not?”

Hays himself grew up in ’60s Greenville. Having finished his first novel, Sam’s Crossing (published in 1992), he wanted to write about that small, Southern town “and what it was like to be a boy at that time,” he explained during a recent interview. The year 1963 was ripe with event — from Kennedy’s assassination to increasingly tense race relations to the muddy fear of “atomic war.” Yet Hays doesn’t allow these events to dwarf the life of the novel; In The Family Way never takes on the dread seriousness of a book that is supposed to be About Something.

“Sometimes, when people write about race, it feels so heavy-handed or overly political,” says Hays. “And [as a boy] it didn’t feel that way, and I just wanted to try to get some sort of accurate reflection of that.” Hays does this by focusing on the young boy’s interior life. At 10, Jeru is grappling with the death of his younger brother. He watches, too, as his parents grieve — his Yankee father retreating to the basement to write a novel, wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, and his mother converting to Christian Science. Life for Jeru is full of tumult. His best friend’s parents are going through a divorce, his fifth-grade teacher is having a breakdown, and a new girl in his class claims to be Jeru’s half-sister. Somewhere in the middle, Jeru’s mom becomes pregnant — against the advice of her doctor.

All this angst makes In The Family Way sound as sad and as bursting with swelling music as Edge of Night, the soap that Della, the family’s maid, watches as she irons. But Hays controls the story by telling it simply (often the hardest thing to do) and with a keen and wry sense of the heart’s ineluctable contrariness. Take, for example, this scene in which Jeru’s class is notified that Kennedy has been shot: “I remember Mr. Keener’s announcement to the class — how some of us gasped, how others cried ‘No!’ Millicent Dillingham, a strange girl who somehow still believed in Santa Claus, who wasn’t allowed to watch TV, and whose parents voted for Nixon, said, ‘Good,’ then burst into tears.”

Jeru is sensitive, yet, like any 10-year-old, often awkward and dumb, and it’s a tribute to Hays that he doesn’t try to spruce up Jeru into a poster child of enlightened Southern boyhood. Instead, Jeru bumbles toward his own understandings — wanting to do good but often not knowing how — and becomes a sponge to the opinions of the adults around him.

Having lived in New England for a few years, Hays was challenged to write a novel that went against Southern stereotypes. Remembering the adults he had known as a child, he “wanted to try to embody the conflict there: These aren’t terrible people who believe fairly terrible things,” he says. As he puts it, Greenville was “a setting full of contradictions.”

Hays teaches creative writing at UNCA and, each summer, he also teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School of the Arts. He and his wife, Connie, have two kids, ages 7 and 4. The eldest, Max, was born about the time Hays started In The Family Way. “Max and [my daughter] Ruth both took me back to what it was like to be a child,” says Hays. “And [having a child] also made me think hard about what it was like for my parents to be parents. So it was like having kids gave me the novel in some sense.”

The result is a vivid portrait of family life and the many intersections of love, grief, humor — and the chance to begin again.

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