More than anything else, a city is an idea. An idea powerful enough to declare itself in iron, timber, and stone, and arrogant enough to push those declarations up against the sky so that the city may cast its own light and shadow among the souls it shelters. A city absorbs the lives of its inhabitants. It outlives them. And it never forgets what it has been.
In Batt Humphreys' novel, Dead Weight, the city of Charleston emerges from this fictionalized account of a racial tragedy as a vital character in its own right: proud, resilient, and beautiful — much like the resourceful women New York Tribune reporter Hal Hinson encounters almost from the moment he sets foot in the city.
In the summer of 1910, Charleston police arrested a black man, Daniel Cornelius "Nealy" Duncan, on charges of viciously assaulting the widow of a tailor, Max Lubelsky. Rose Lubelsky, the widow, was struck down in the same King Street shop where barely two weeks before her husband had been murdered. Nealy Duncan found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time: heading for the tailor's shop to make the final payment on his wedding suit when the attack on Mrs. Lubelsky occurred. He was hauled off the street and later, charged with both the assault and Lubelsky's murder. Hinson has come to cover the racially charged trial, one whose outcome seems like a foregone conclusion: Duncan will hang.
Hinson, the Yankee stranger in a strange land, reveals himself to be an unlikely romantic caught up in a gathering storm. Charleston's history and culture pounce on him: At every turn, someone is thrusting their world view in his face. Even the bird-like matron Mrs. Vanderhorst from her queenly perch in the lobby of the Mills Hotel presses him, "I only ask you to do your job and report. Don't judge."
But a Klan meeting, a pair of muggings, and a weekend visit to the defense attorney's plantation in the company of a beguiling courtesan all intrude on the journalist's objectivity. And unravelling Duncan's story sets the stage for even larger questions as Hinson tries to understand this seductive, conflicted city and take the measure of the forces that shaped it.
Increasingly, Hinson becomes a captive of his infatuations. As the story progresses, his appetites for splendid food, women, and intrigue are abundantly catered to — so much so that Hinson's story threatens to overtake the novel. His dispatches to his New York paper read like presumptive obituaries and despairing narrative glimpses of a world he may never comprehend. Even so, the novel's greatest pleasure comes from watching Hinson develop a private empathy for all his subjects.
Hinson's distractions take us further into Dead Weight's parallel tale which is less concerned with moral outrage at what is taking place around him. That story is a love story. Hinson learns the hard way that to love any city is to love it entirely: fabulous and flawed, in bright light and shadows.
In many ways, Hinson is out of step with his times, ahead of both the Charleston and the New York of his own day, reflecting attitudes more in line with modern views. These attitudes hinder him with his contemporaries but provide a lens for understanding the unexpected affection he develops for the city. We are drawn to understand the things he hopes to understand.
In his interviews, Hinson is reminded of Charleston's pre-Revolutionary history and the area's role in the War of Independence. He learns that the meals he is enjoying derive their flavors from the Gullah culture and African ways with food. His views of race-relations in the South shift as he notices where lines are crossed and by whom.
Hinson is not himself especially virtuous, but as our guide, he has an unerring eye for virtue wherever he finds it. And in the end we learn, just as Hinson does, that even the city most adorned in grace will betray, among its broad streets and hidden recesses, something of the wild hopes and volatile yearnings that formed it. To be shown Charleston in this way is no small thing.