296 Pages; Print, $17.95
Like many Southern novels, Gray Stewart’s Haylow is haunted, both by the protagonist Travis Hemperly’s drowned brother and by the racial history that contours Stewart’s vision of Georgia. The novel is set in 1996 Atlanta, shortly after the Olympic Games have left town, and the city’s divisions come into clear view after the crowds and money leave. It’s a credit to Stewart’s history-laden novel that its milieu seems both dated and timeless. The locals’ concerns, whether about the beefed-up police force that harasses black people or the inevitable gentrification of old neighborhoods, are the same ones that Americans continue to wrestle with two decades later. Haylow suggests to us that if race relations in America can change, they do so slowly and imperfectly.
Haylow moves through a dozen characters’ points of view, but the core of the plot revolves around Travis, who has somehow found himself teaching at a historically black college in his hometown of Atlanta. Travis is white—so white that he is a specialist in Viking history—and after living in the north he finds himself once again steeped in histories of his family, his Southern heritage and his own life. Even Travis’s love interest, a woman named Meggan who carries her own dark past with a drug-addict husband, is an old college flame. His father is “as unreconstructed a racist as there’s ever been,” a host for a call-in talk show on Confederate Radio. And then there’s a story that nags at Travis. He half-remembers his father talking about an incident in southern Georgia, near a family member’s turpentine plantation: a man was tied to a tree and murdered with an ax. Travis seeks historical details to determine if the story implicates his family in a lynching, and if so, what that means for his identity as a Hemperly and as a Southerner.
Travis must also reorient himself as a white minority on a college campus. Haylow is a Southern novel, but it’s also a campus novel, and one of the book’s most finely wrought chapters gives us a panoramic view of the first day at an HBCU. Stewart draws on his own experience teaching creative writing at Morehouse College for more than a decade. The novel devotes several chapters to the perspectives of Travis’s fellow professors, the most perplexing of which is Kwasi Kalamari, clad in a dashiki and desperate to unite black people under his version of racial essentialism. While trying to sell political coloring books outside of a grocery store, Kalamari has a run-in with a cop that escalates when his dreadlocks become stuck to the Atlanta Police Department badge on the officer’s chest. Kalamari pleads with the officer to set a better example for those who witness the incident, as he seems to understand the way that history will repeat itself around this image of race relations.
For Kalamari, the racism of the sidewalk is inextricable from that of his college campus. Haylow performs a balancing act between a conceptual interest in race and the often high-stakes confrontations its characters face around Atlanta. Characters both black and white are in flux between a sense of belonging and being displaced. Kalamari opposes Travis’s post at the college, repeatedly calling him out as a “European” with no business teaching black students, but another professor named Longman acts as a mediator or middle ground between the two; in one chapter we follow Longman’s internal struggle on whether to practice code switching in front of his black students—that is, whether to ask them a question or aks them one.
Readers who are looking for a definitive stance on the politics or the linguistics of race might be unsatisfied by the scope of Haylow, which emphasizes the enduring presence of historical conflict rather than resolutions. The novel moves off-campus in its search for an authentic racial history, as Travis makes his way to Haylow, a turpentine plantation once run by his...