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‘Visible Empire’ explores privilege in novel tied to 1962 Orly crash

Hannah Pittard’s ambitious fourth novel, “Visible Empire,” was inspired by the 1962 Paris plane crash that killed over 100 prominent Atlantans, art patrons returning from a tour of European museums. Pittard grew up hearing stories of the crash’s aftermath, and she dedicates the book to her mother, “who first told (her) the story of the disaster at Orly.” History and storytelling have much in common, but fiction, of course, is a different beast. By imagining rather than simply retelling the accident’s impact on Atlanta, Pittard shapes a more complex and resonant exploration of a very contemporary and contentious concept: privilege.

“Visible Empire” by Hannah Pittard. (For Cox Newspapers)

That is not to say that Pittard does not know her history. She lists 42 “Works Consulted,” most of which focus on the crash itself, Atlanta culture and politics, and civil rights in the early 1960s. And one of the novel’s narrative threads is a series of clipped, if not odd, conversations between then-Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and his wife, Lulu, the only two actual historical characters in the book. Pittard’s depiction of Allen’s stoicism in trying to hold together both the city and his wife in the wake of the crash and the onset of the civil rights movement no doubt comes from the pages of history and helps establish one of the novel’s themes, how external power shifts can challenge even the most personal of relationships.

In fact, it is personal — familial, to be more exact — relationships that initially fare the worst after the tragedy. Robert Tucker, one of the three major characters in the novel (there is no single protagonist), is a 40-something Atlanta Journal editor who sent his decades younger mistress, a reporter, to cover the Europe trip only to lose her in the crash. Devastated, Tucker leaves his pregnant wife, Lily, and binge-drinks his way through the next few weeks, never quite achieving his desired escape from reality. Pittard writes, “No matter how deep into Atlanta he went, no matter how often he changed bars, there was always someone new to run into, someone new to beg for an accounting.”

What saves Robert from being the “monster, ne’er-do-well, sonofabitch, bastard” he deems himself when he leaves Lily is a burgeoning self-awareness, Pittard’s character interiority aptly providing the novel’s tension. At first, Tucker doesn’t favorably compare to his friend Raif Bentley, who loses his wife and children in the crash and yet still finds a tough compassion for Robert, perhaps something more for Lily. However, in comparison to his rich, feckless friend P.T. Coleman, who loses both parents and then inherits even more wealth, including an infamous Gauguin painting, Tucker is a prince. Through these three men, Pittard questions if male loyalty exists — and to what extent privilege defines or distorts that loyalty.

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Pittard poses an even more intriguing question, however: While affluent Atlantans were reconstructing their lives after the Orly disaster, what was the rest of Atlanta doing? As Pittard herself has explained, “Not everyone in Atlanta felt that crash, not in the way that the newspapers would have had us believe. It would have been just irresponsible to try to write a book about Atlanta in 1962 and not address the question of race.”

Enter Piedmont Dobbs, whom drunken P.T. Coleman hires to drive Robert Tucker and himself to a hangar in Athens so that Coleman — sure that his parents’ recent fate will not find him — can buy an airplane. Dobbs is working as a janitor at a nightclub after curiously leaving home and his mother after not being accepted as one of the black students matriculated into Atlanta’s all-white public schools.

Dobbs views the chauffeur job as a privilege and accepts with one telling phrase. “And while `yes, sir’ was something that everyone of his kind said on a near-hourly basis and therefore was not remotely new or unique, was in fact a state of being, a phrase passed down by blood from one generation to the next, what was both new and unique was that he was going sixty, maybe sixty-five — all right, closer to seventy miles an hour, because who was going to stop him?” After an incident of police brutality that echoes contemporary iterations, the question of who will “stop” Dobbs — as he decides if violence is a necessary response to injustice — hovers, adding needed heft to the book.

When Dobbs stays in the guest cottage behind the house Lily Tucker expects to lose (it turns out her parents were not rich after all), a tender romance ensues, although it is unclear if it is more encouraged by Lily’s absolute loneliness or her penchant for idealizing “Negro” musicians, as is Dobbs. Lily and Dobbs emerge the novel’s most likable characters. Their individual stories, and their relationship, would have been enough material for a novel, and it is unfortunate that they receive short shrift given the many points of view within the book’s episodic structure.

Dreamy-eyed, abandoned Anastasia’s point of view, however, offers another angle on what the rest of Atlanta — white and poor, in her case — was doing after the crash. “An act of defiance — against whom, precisely, she didn’t know since her brother was AWOL and her parents were long gone,” her job as a diver entertaining guests at the new Radisson hotel turns into a post-crash opportunity to finally be “discovered.” Quite interesting, though sketchy, she is a reminder that another type of privilege is being able to manipulate others’ vulnerabilities, as she eventually does those of Coleman’s rich lesbian aunt. Although Anastasia’s character leads Pittard to plot decisions, including the surprise arrival of her depraved twin brother, that feel too commercial for the novel’s aspirations, her alternate “accounting” of the impact of the Orly tragedy by far earns its keep.

Pittard’s earlier novels, in particular her debut “The Fates Will Find Their Way,” established her as a formidable writer. The prose in “Visible Empire,” whose title alludes to the KKK’s “invisible empire,” remains assured, polished, readable, and she renders a 1962 Atlanta that is vivid and just-enough interconnected. Ultimately, Pittard shoulders the burden of history with responsibility and resolve, and a brave imagination.

FICTION

“Visible Empire”

By Hannah Pittard

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

275 pages, $25

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