Spirit of 16th century saint inhibits search for identity in ‘None But the Righteous’

Author Chantal James
Courtesy of Zoe Davidson

Credit: Zoe Davidson

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Author Chantal James Courtesy of Zoe Davidson

Credit: Zoe Davidson

Credit: Zoe Davidson

Hurricane Katrina is cataclysmic event that sets Chantal James’ novel into motion.

Guided by the spirit that occupies him, a young man flees a catastrophic hurricane that devastates his Louisiana home to embark upon a journey of self-discovery in “None But the Righteous.”

Chantal James’ lyrical debut is a deeply contemplative and transcendent study of relationships and human behavior. Swirling in mysticism and devoid of a linear attachment to time, place or character, the bones of the story slowly emerge from the haze of James’ evocative and sensuous prose.

Ham has spent his life emotionally isolated. His early childhood was full of neglect and the lingering recollection of a baby sister he loved. But those were “days consumed by that total whitewash, that blankness, by which memory is stored in the ligaments and in the innermost chambers of the heart.” In the first of many losses Ham experiences, his relationship with his sister is severed when the children are taken from their mother.

Eventually Ham is placed in foster care with Miss Pearl and his interior begins to take shape. Ham’s basic needs are met, but Miss Pearl is stingy with food and affection. Yet, she demands adulation for her generosity. The contradictory conditions cause a sense of never truly belonging to take root inside Ham. When Miss Pearl detects something “wild and alien in the young boy,” she places her MeeMaw’s pendant containing a fragment of a saint’s bone around Ham’s neck for protection. The next day the spirit begins to wake up in Ham’s body.

The narrative progresses in the spirit’s omniscient viewpoint as the essence who calls himself Papa Legba unfolds upon the page. In James’ narrative, Legba is the spirit of a 16th century Dominican saint from Peru who manifests as “an old man, Sorrow, who comes to rest beside you when no one else will, the silent boots that come over the threshold, the creak in the old wooden chair.” His stronghold over Ham strengthens as they fall into a symbiotic struggle of give and take. A numbness overtakes Ham’s undernourished soul, and he becomes pliable to Legba’s possession.

The foundation of Ham’s characterization is revealed in circuitous bursts and waves throughout the story. Dipping in and out of points of view, with the demarcation of time as blurred as the lines between the physical and spiritual, James opens the narrative with a reunion between Ham and Mayfly, an older girl he met while living with Miss Pearl.

If Ham is the embodiment of vacuity, Mayfly is the poster child of volition. She is the 21st century incarnation of Janie Crawford from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” except Mayfly doesn’t follow after a man to defy society’s expectations. She hops on a freight train with a couple of friends and settles for a while wherever she happens to land.

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"None But the Righteous" by Chantal James Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

Credit: Counterpoint Press

"None But the Righteous" by Chantal James
Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

Credit: Counterpoint Press

caption arrowCaption
"None But the Righteous" by Chantal James Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

Credit: Counterpoint Press

Credit: Counterpoint Press

Drawn to Mayfly’s impenetrable sense of self, a characteristic Legba is increasingly absorbing from the boy, Ham follows Mayfly around like an eager puppy. The few months they spend together grow to hold “a place of high honor on his old map, that map of his city back when it was his whole world, with its layers of the past peeking out from beneath everything everywhere, unfurling without warning into any present moment.”

Feelings of estrangement and isolation have consumed Ham by the time he exits adolescence. He leaves Miss Pearl’s at 17 to venture out on his own. A few years later his hometown is ravaged by “winds that rearranged even the shapes of the constellations.” Ham flees to rural Alabama with Deborah, a girl he meets the night of the storm.

Despite Deborah’s powerful contribution to Ham’s life, she is only a stopover, a detour, on his way to reconnect with Mayfly. Drawn by his memory of Mayfly and her powerful self-possession, he arrives on her Atlanta doorstep seven years after their previous encounter.

James does not mention New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, voodoo or Saint Martin de Porres by name in “Righteous.” While the reader who is familiar with the details of the cataclysmic storm will recognize time and place, James does not record a year. The effect imparts a feeling of detachment that serves to mirror Ham’s emotional alienation.

The primary struggle in “None But the Righteous” is the battle for Ham’s interior. Over the years Legba makes a comfortable home inside Ham’s body. Alcohol, exhaustion and weakness allow Legba control. Caffeine, strength and self-possession thwart the spirit’s power. But Ham is not aware of Legba’s governance. He only “feels these urges come from beyond him, urges he knows are not his urges but my urges, the urges whose satisfaction allow him to escape himself in the ways he needs to when the world closes in.”

Ham embarks on the hero’s journey to make his own way in the world. He becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the fork in the road he should take. The path of least resistance, the one Legba urges him down, leaves him restless and searching for the place he truly belongs. As he strengthens and Legba weakens, Ham finds the will required to become his own man. But accustomed to his solitary existence, Ham mistakes his newfound freedom for one of godlessness and abandonment.

“None But the Righteous” emerges as a provocative and compelling examination of the human spirit, the ties that bind people to each other and the way people are shaped by the things that happen to them, far more than the choices they make.


FICTION

“None But the Righteous”

by Chantal James

Counterpoint Press, 240 pages, $26