Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. But it became much more than that when the middle-class black families marched:
…they marched on city hall, the school board, even the Department of Public Works, holding out the collective votes of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of a new Negro middle class, and sealing, in the process, the neighbourhood’s political power, which would become legend over the next four decades.
The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.
Since we last saw Jay in Black Water Rising, he’s taken on a huge civil case against Cole Oil Industries and bought a dilapidated house to use as an office. When he arrives there having been alerted to the break-in, he waits in his car for the cops to arrive. Locke uses the scene to comment upon police treatment of black men.
The officers pulled to a stop at an angle that brought the front end of their cruiser to rest nearly at Jay’s feet at the curb, its headlights hitting him square in the chest. He instinctively raised his hands.
“Porter,” he said, loud and clear. “This is my place.”
Once the police have searched the building, found it empty, filled out an incident report and left, Jay hears someone upstairs. He finds a nineteen or twenty-year-old male in his conference room. After the kid kicks the remaining pieces of glass from the frame of the window he’s broken, Jay has the opportunity – legally – to shoot him. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t shoot this kid in the back.
Currently, Jay’s only case is Pleasantville v. ProFerma Labs, a case which has come from two explosions at ProFerma’s chemical plant that threatened to burn Pleasantville to the ground. Jay assumed it would be over quickly but ProFerma still haven’t made a serious settlement offer. Jay’s down to the one case because of his home-life: Bernie’s dead and he has two children, fifteen-year-old Ellie and ten-year-old Ben, to raise alone. Soon though, Jay’s caught up in trying to discover the whereabouts of the missing girl, Alicia Nowell. Two other girls, Deanne Duchon and Tina Wells, also went missing from Pleasantville, one in 1994, the other in 1995. In both cases, the girls were found dead six days after their abductions. While investigating any links to the earlier cases knowing time is against the girl and the community, Jay discovers there’s someone watching him, someone driving a stolen Nissan Z. As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre.
In Pleasantville, Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power. She clearly ties some of the strategies used in Pleasantville to win voters to the campaign for the Bush/Gore election in 2000 when it came down to a handful of votes across the country. It’s a scenario that could be bone dry in a less exciting writer’s hands, but Locke knows how to tie the personal with the political and does so both with the Hathorne family and Jay’s own situation.
The novel has real pace to it, twist and turns every few pages none of which are either predictable or implausible and this alone would mark Locke as an excellent political thriller writer. However, the fact that she writes about black communities; that her characters are almost all black or Hispanic; that while her stories couldn’t be transposed to a white community, her characters are every bit as rounded, human, good, bad and changeable as novels peopled with only white characters, makes her work stand out in a block of pale, stereotyped tales.
Pleasantville is an intelligent, rip-roaring insight into the political process and an astute look at the dynamics of family – blood or created – and how they change following significant life events. Attica Locke is a superb writer and fast becoming one of my personal favourites.
Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.