The ambiguous ending of The Chaneysville Incident, by David Bradley (1982), recalls the end of Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon as well as William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! These novels actually have some sort of inter-textual relationship. There may also be a connection with Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King’s Men (1946). Both The Chaneysville Incident and All The King’s Men have a historian as the main character and narrator. In both novels, the main character is attempting to uncover information about the past that has a direct bearing on his personal and public situation in the present. However, I must confess that because I’ve spent so much time reading and studying Faulkner and Warren I am prone to see influences in all sorts of places where they may not be. So that's a caution.
The Chaneysville Incident is about a son attempting to understand and discover his father, a man named Moses Washington, who has been dead some twenty years. John, his son, was only around ten years old at the time of his death, ostensibly in a hunting accident. As John investigates over a period of decades his father and learns about him more than he ever expected to know, he comes to a disturbing understanding of his father's death, its nature, and of American history. The story of John's ancestry is intimately linked to the history of American slavery. In fact, during the course of the novel, John's research moves back and forth between present and past, often as far back as the early 18th or late 17th century. The analytical objectivity of the historian is confronted by and challenged by the intimately subjective nature of the narrator's personal past, of his desire to understand his father better, to come to terms with his father's death, and to apprehend in the fullest possible way the nature of slavery in America's history.
The novel is divided into two sections: they seem to be about equal in length though I'd have to check to be sure about that. The first section is a narration by John of his growing up in a small town and his uneasy relationship with his father and his nearly as uneasy relationship with his mother. John returns to that small town when an old man who had served as his friend and mentor after his father died himself passes away. His discovery of books and papers in the attic room where his father spent much of his time, and, later on, his interview with an elderly judge who knew his father well brings new revelations and information about Moses Washington. There are all sorts of parallels at work in this novel. John has been in a relationship with a nurse, named Alex, for nearly 9 years. She is white and he is black, and this factor has a bearing on his attitude towards her. The family stories he investigates begin to center on a relationship his great-grandfather had in Philadelphia. So, while he is in the process of learning about and coming to terms with the story of his great-grandfather's ancestry, the facts of which he knows in considerable detail, he is also in the process of coming to terms with his relationship with Alex. And while he is in the process of discovering and coming to terms with the story of his own father, and his father's father and grandfather, John is also in the process of coming to terms with himself.
The second section of the novel largely takes place on top of a mountain when Johnny and Alex are caught in a blizzard and have to abandon their car. They camp in the middle of the blizzard, taking shelter under the shelter that John has built. The next morning they walk towards the site where Moses Washington died. Discoveries at that site lead to the climax of the novel, which occurs entirely within John’s mind as he narrates the story to Alex. He has complained earlier in the novel about having the facts but not knowing how to fit them together. Alex tells him that all he needs is to apply some imagination, but he says that imagination isn't involved. In the second section of the novel he tells a story about his ancestor that is clearly both the product of imagination and fact.
This novel was highly entertaining and readable, but it was also dense and slow going. I have to admit that I was somewhat challenged by the narrative structure, especially in the second section where John tells a long and detailed story to his girlfriend that in real life would normally have taken much more time than they both actually devote to it. This is a narrative convention. We’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, just as we did in the long-winded later chapters of Absalom, Absalom! where Quentin and his roommate Shreve tell each other a story that neither of them could have known much about. They reconstruct it from a few facts and from their own deeply engaged imagination with those facts just as John does with the information he’s uncovered about his ancestry. There is a powerful and unsettling end to this novel. It's frustrating in a way, but it's also satisfying.
What Bradley gives us in The Chaneysville Incident is his own theory about slavery and its impact on African-Americans, white Americans, and race relations in American history. He sees the entire American economy as built on and by slavery. He sees whites as blind to the truth of their heritage, as still engaged in the perpetration of the many sins that slavery involved. Bradley, like James Baldwin before him, is not forgiving of white America. But in the course of the novel he makes clear the reasons why.