Carson McCullers is another of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. So when I saw Clock Without Hands in the half-price sale at Blackwell’s Charing Cross, I knew I had to have it. First published in 1961, Clock Without Hands was McCullers’s final novel prior to her death in 1967 (aged 50 years). She is widely recognised as one of the great American writers of her time, and Gore Vidal described her writing as ‘one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.’
Set in 1953 in a small town in Georgia, USA, Clock Without Hands focuses on four men whose lives are connected both in the present and by events in the past. As the book opens, thirty-nine-year-old J.T. Malone, owner of the local pharmacy, learns that he is suffering from leukaemia and is given only twelve to fifteen months to live. This news prompts the unassuming Malone to reflect on his life and its disappointments: the ‘Jew grinds’ that had crowded him out of medical school thereby forcing him to move over to pharmacy instead; the lack of intimacy and love in his stilted marriage; a sense of bewilderment as to where or how he had lost his way in life:
As he sat holding the pestle there was in him enough composure to wonder at those alien emotions that had veered so violently in his once mild heart. He was split between love and hatred – but what he loved and what he hated was unclear. For the first time he knew that death was near to him. But the terror that choked him was not caused by the knowledge of his own death. The terror concerned some mysterious drama that was going on – although what the drama was about Malone did not know. The terror questioned what would happen in those months – how long? – that glared upon his numbered days. He was a man watching a clock without hands. (pg. 27, Penguin Classics)
Malone’s closest friend and confidante is Judge Fox Clane, a rambunctious former congressman who has suffered his own tragedies in life. Some seventeen years have passed since Judge Clane lost his son, Johnny (to suicide), his daughter-in-law (who died in childbirth) and his wife (to cancer), but the death of his son in particular continues to haunt his thoughts.
Judge Clane believes in white supremacy and the ‘noble standards of the South.’ He is firmly in favour of maintaining racial segregation in all aspects of civilised life, and as such his views are in direct opposition to those of his grandson, the sensitive Jester Clane (the third of our four main characters and Johnny’s son):
‘The time may come in your generation – I hope I won’t be here – when the educational system itself is mixed – with no colour line. How would you like that?’
Jester did not answer.
‘How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?’
The Judge could not believe in the possibility of this; he wanted to shock Jester to the gravity of the situation. His eyes challenged his grandson to react in the spirit of Southern gentlemen.
‘How about a hulking white girl sharing a desk with a delicate little Negro boy?’
Jester did not repeat his words, nor did the old Judge want to hear again the words that so alarmed him. It was as though his grandson had committed some act of insipient lunacy, and it is fearful to acknowledge the approach of madness in a beloved. It is so fearful that the old Judge preferred to distrust his own hearing, although the sound of Jester’s voice still throbbed against his eardrums. He tried to twist the words to his own reason. (pgs. 29-30)
Jester befriends a local black boy, Sherman Pew, a bright, confident and articulate orphan who, as a baby, was left abandoned on a church pew. Sherman is unaware of the identity of either of his parents, but is especially keen to find his mother. Pew is also connected to Judge Clane in more ways than one; he once saved the Judge from drowning, and is now in Clane’s employ as an ‘amanuensis’ to write letters, read poetry, fix drinks and attend to his medical needs. At times, Sherman revels in his position as Judge Clane’s ‘jewel’; he considers himself a cut above the other household help and often behaves in a rude or fickle manner towards Jester, whose feelings for Sherman run deep.
As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about events in the past, revelations that shed a different light on the connections between these characters. The circumstances surrounding Johnny’s suicide become clear to Jester prompting him to choose a particular path for the future. And when Sherman discovers information regarding the identity of his parents, the consequences of subsequent events touch all the main players in this novel.
I greatly enjoyed Clock Without Hands; the four main characters, particularly Judge Clane, are skilfully realised. McCullers explores some thought-provoking themes with great insight and understanding of the human condition. Malone and Judge Clane both experience periods of isolation and detachment, but their responses differ; Malone faces up to his own mortality and seeks solace and understanding in the church (although few answers are forthcoming); Clane feels threatened by the prospect of racial integration and aims to guard against any advance in this movement. Perversely, there are times when he seems to forget that Sherman is black, but the Judge’s relationship with this young man is born out of guilt as well as gratitude for saving his life.
Ultimately, Clock Without Hands focuses on interracial tensions and injustices and how these ‘sit’ alongside our beliefs and principles. The novel’s title is significant here; racial integration would move the clock forward, but Judge Clane seems content for the South to remain in the early-sixties or revert to bygone days.
Clock Without Hands is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.