Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Harper Lee’s new novel can’t help but be a disappointment. Go Set a Watchman has a pole vault in hand, but it is bound to fall short of the high bar set by To Kill a Mockingbird. Readers have built such a wall of love around Mockingbird--a high, impenetrable wall--that any interloper who comes along, claiming the same pedigree, is immediately at a disadvantage. Fair? No. Inevitable? Yes. It doesn't help that Go Set a Watchman has a curious and rather dubious history. As the New York Times notes: “Though Watchman is being published for the first time now, it was essentially an early version of Mockingbird. According to news accounts, Watchman was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became Mockingbird.”

I plan to start reading the Novel Everyone’s Talking About later today, and I’m going to give it a fair shake, but I’m a little worried about the rumblings I’ve heard from early reviews. Apparently, Go Set a Watchman transforms the beloved, square-jawed Atticus Finch character into a racist in his later years. Go Set a Watchman is set twenty years after the events of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel when Scout, now a grown-up Jean Louise, returns to Maycomb County, Alabama to visit her aging, ailing father. If what I’ve read is true, that visit will leave a sour stain on readers’ cherished memories of Atticus Finch, the character who was once voted the all-time seventh-greatest hero in literature. These are the times when I wish I could live in that proverbial cave so I could block out all the unnecessary noise surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

Here’s how I see it (in these last remaining hours before I actually read the book itself): I feel like a guy who’s just been told his favorite uncle--a smart, kind man who always told the greatest stories around the Thanksgiving table--has a son no one in the family had ever met. “Wonderful!” I think. “If he’s anything like his dad, I can’t wait to meet him.” And so I set a date to have this newfound cousin over for dinner, anticipating the fun times we’ll have together. But then, just before he arrives at my house, people start emailing me links to stories about Cousin Jack--disturbing accounts of unseemly behavior, lurid tales of his disreputable character, hints and allegations, scandals and rumors--all leading me to think he’s nothing like his father. One anonymous correspondent goes so far as to say, “You’ll wish he’d never been born.” As I set out the cheese-and-salami tray and uncork the chardonnay a few minutes before Jack is due to ring my doorbell, I try to push these negative insinuations from my head. I need to give him the benefit of the doubt. Having never met the guy, I feel he deserves a clean slate from the first handshake. Still, I know I’m in for an uncomfortable evening, given all I’ve been hearing.

Frankly, this video--a PBS American Masters “coda” from filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy who brought us the documentary Harper Lee: Hey, Boo--doesn’t do much to set my mind at ease. In fact, my trepidation is captured, unwittingly, by Lee’s dapper British agent Andrew Nurnberg when he says, “You can imagine, on the one hand, I was very excited that this existed; and on the other hand, as a professional, I was very wary because nobody ever knew about this. Perhaps this was something that shouldn’t have been published, perhaps this was something that wasn’t up to scratch....And the last thing you want to do in our profession is to milk something, or get enthusiastic about something that isn’t up to par.”

So, as I open the book to the first page, I am both excited and wary. But mostly wary. I have a feeling someone is about to kill my mockingbird. And we all know what Miss Maudie had to say about that: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

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