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New Yorker Fiction Review #251: "The Sand Banks, 1861," by David Wright Falade

 David Wright Falad√©: "The Sand Banks, 1861" | The Mookse and the Gripes

Review of a short story from the Aug. 31, 2020 issue of The New Yorker...

David Wright -- who sometimes writes as David Wright Falade (there should be an accent aigu on the "e" of his last name but I can't figure out how to do that on this keyboard) -- is an American writer who has written a couple of non-fiction books, one of them about the first all-black rescue vessel in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1871. The book, called Fire on the Beach (2002), as well as a documentary and some TV journalism work related to the same subject, have earned apparently earned him enough literary street cred that he's now plugging his novel in The New Yorker, via short stories like this.

According to the customary "This Week in Fiction" interview, with the author of that week's published New Yorker short story, Falade says the story is "adapted" from his forthcoming novel Nigh on a Border (2022) which takes place in the Outer Banks in the early days of the Civil War. In "The Sand Banks, 1861" we are introduced to a lifestyle and a region that most of us are probably not familiar with: the isolated life of the North Carolina coastal islands in the mid-1800s. No electricity. No automobiles. No nothing. The islands were a culture isolated from the mainland and yet with their own distinct web of interrelations and customs, and -- most importantly to Wright Falade's fiction, it seems -- attitudes toward race. 

David Wright Falade seems to have "found his material," as they say, and is sticking with it. Why not? It seems like a fascinating enough time and place to write about and, given the way that racial injustice issues have been brought back into the spotlight, front and center, writing about race and racial politics in a forgotten corner of the U.S. -- and U.S. history -- seems pretty poignant and timely.

However, personally, I don't care for historical fiction. In my opinion, if it's done right, you shouldn't even notice that it's set in another time period. The "period" details and (eye roll) the period dialect should almost recede into the background. Not necessarily the case with "The Sand Banks, 1861." What we have is an almost Huckleberry Finn-like setting, a black kid and a white kid are friends (actually half-brothers) but the white kid enjoys all the privilege of the era (namely: freedom) and struggles between lording it over his friend and participating in the sacred rituals and codes of boyhood friendship of supposed equals. 

I wanted to love this story because I love the setting, the time period -- the characters speak of what's happening in the early days of the war as though it's happening on another planet but it soon to affect what's happening on theirs -- and the idea of visiting how racial relations take place on a community which has developed for decades, even centuries, away from the strictures of the mainland. But for me, the "period" dialogue got in the way and made this kind of a clumsy read. Furthermore, when a lot of the story and significant backstory unfolds through dialogue, one must read very, very carefully in order to grab the subtleties of certain exchanges. This causes a reader (me, in this case) to have to read certain passages over and over in order to find the subtle significance of each remark or reference. Personally, I don't want to have to do that. If I do, it feels like the writer is not doing his or her job, frankly. 

So, while I didn't love this story, I'll be looking for the book to come out and to see what kind of an impression it makes. I would be surprised if this body of Wright Falade's work didn't make it's way onto the silver screen in some way or another -- the actual movies, or via Netflix, HBO, Hulu -- because it seems pretty ripe for treatment as a motion picture or even a TV series.