On the outset, one might think Regina Porter’s debut novel, “The Travelers,” is just another family novel.
The beginning of the book offers a guide for the ample cast of characters, mainly the Vincent and the Camphor families. The marketing material says the book charts the adventures of two families as they intertwine over the latter half of the 20th century and into the early years of the Obama presidency.
But Porter upends any expectations of the traditional family saga by constantly shape-shifting. Each chapter contains its own form — from epistolary to the dialogue-only structure of a play — and invests in different characters.
The first chapter spans 60 years and begins with a folksy, if tragic, recounting of the marital troubles of James Vincent Jr. — otherwise known as “the man James” — and his son Rufus. Rufus’ wife, Claudia, is the daughter to Agnes, whose story forms the dark heart of the book.
One night in 1966 in Buckner County, Ga. — where half of the book is set — Agnes and her boyfriend Claude, who are both black, are returning home after an Abbey Lincoln concert when they get pulled over on Damascus Road. The white officers search Claude and Agnes for “contraband,” beat Claude with a billy club, pour whiskey over his face and then take turns leading Agnes into the woods.
Flash-forward to 2008. Agnes’ oldest daughter Beverly and her sister Claudia comfort their dying father with recitations of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which he stole from an officer in his Navy days. Tensions escalate, and as the sisters argue in the hospital, Claudia, a Columbia alum and Shakespeare scholar, grows self-conscious of the volume of their voices. “I wanted to tell her to kill the euphemisms. You act just like white folk. When white folks say boisterous they mean there’s color in the room.”
Various racial tensions and violence thread through the book. Hank Camphor, the illegitimate son of James Vincent Jr., is forbidden from playing with the black boy next door. As Hank grows older, an accident involving his cousin’s dog harks back to his herky-jerky childhood. Indeed, as Nancy Vincent, one of the book’s many minor characters, observes, “We move in circles in this life.”
Most things, however, don’t necessarily come full circle, resolve or round out — and that’s not a criticism. Sometimes a dark thing happens on a country road, and that’s that. The officer and the victim — or the victim’s family — move on with their lives. This lack of neatness feels closer to real life than most family sagas, whose stories often tidy up with easy reconciliation or syrupy sentimentalism. But those endings often detract from an otherwise complex story. And complexity is one thing Porter knows well.
As Agnes thinks to herself toward the end of the book, when all of the family is gathered around a table, we have “so many lives and selves in one body.”
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Virginia Quarterly Review and the Iowa Review. He lives in St. Paul.
By: Regina Porter.
Publisher: Hogarth, 309 pages, $27.