Praying for Sheetrock: A Work of Nonfiction

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So emphatic is Melissa Fay Greene that Praying for Sheetrock is a work of nonfiction that she includes the phrase as a part of the title. Perhaps she feared that her use of novelistic techniques might lead the reader astray into believing that the stories she tells, the history she recounts, are imagined or distorted. Without resorting to journalese, she employs some of the reporter's tricks to make her work more immediate: background stories, anecdotes of local color, repetition, and just enough narrative tension to push her tale forward. Consciously or subconsciously, she absorbs and uses to great effect some of the techniques Truman Capote developed for In Cold Blood (1966). She re-creates conversations without unnecessary asides and, more important, in the language she heard in McIntosh County. This skillful use of dialect establishes character in ways that expository description could not.

Her own narrative voice is distinctive, assured, often poetic, as in her introduction to the place about which she writes: "McIntosh County, on the flowery coast of Georgia-small, isolated, lovely."

She never forgets that it is home to the men and women, black and white who help tell her story. She says, "If the Messiah were to arrive today, this cloudless, radiant county would be magnificent enough to receive Him." Its beauty, however, is deceptive. The grinding poverty of its residents is all too real and ugly, and, until recently, the corruption so pervasive that the county's name was synonymous in the state with good-old-boy political chicanery. For example, one of the effective ploys to keep the black citizenry in line was to allow them to plunder wrecked transport trucks on busy U.S. 17.

From the aftermath of just such a wreck, the book gets its title, and for a people as dependent on miracles as on the economy to get by, God took on the epithet of "Sheetrock- Deliverer." Finally one man, a disabled black boilermaker named Thurnell Alston, decided his community could no longer depend on the whims of God or the vagaries of white men for justice. The men and women of McIntosh County had lived so long under a time- honored, not always benevolent despotism that, at least on this local level, Alston was revolutionary in thinking that law could be impartial and that each man and woman deserved a voice in deciding how he or she would be governed. If McIntosh County resembled a feudal realm, it was because the sheriff, Tom Poppell, had made himself lord and master, and under him certain whites and one or two chosen blacks as his nobles. Poor blacks and whites were, pure and simple, the serfs, destined to await the largesse of Sheriff Poppell and the other elected white officials.

Yet, as the author describes the place, it was peaceful for the inhabitants, if not for the unlucky transients who stopped enroute to Florida: "For most of this century, there was a strange racial calm in the county, consisting in part of good manners, in part of intimidation, and in part because the Sheriff cared less about the colors black and white than he did about the color green, and the sound it made shuffled, dealt out and redealt, folded and pocketed beside the wrecked trucks and inside the local truckstop, prostitution houses, clip joints, and warehouse sheds after hours." It was a place, then, where everyone knew what was going on and, in general, accepted it, a place where problems for the old were taken to the church and for the young to the juke joint. Greene emphasizes that special local circumstances, at least particularly Southern ones, dictated that "when angry groups of blacks and whites faced each other, everyone would know everyone else's names and addresses, and know their mamas." They would also all be armed to the teeth, a dangerous stalemate that ironically forestalled violence.

The confrontation came when a white deputy, annoyed by the drunken bantering of courtship, shot a black man in the mouth and threw him in jail without medical attention. The black community, abuzz with the news, came together in protest, and the Civil Rights movement in McIntosh County was born. Its undisputed leader was Thurnell Alston, who along with Sammie Pinkney, a retired policeofficer, and Nathaniel Grovner, a preacher, brought the tactics of protest and confrontation to bear on a system of patronage controlled by Sheriff Poppell. He had actually employed black deputies and had "allowed" blacks to register to vote in the past. He depended on their voting in a bloc for his hand- picked candidates after 1966. Until that time, he manipulated the process so that no black man or woman could have been elected to the county commission, but he was a wily and astute politician who thought that he could control the shape of the inevitable changes he saw elsewhere when they came to "his" county. In that year, his black candidate, a 78-year-old man, was elected to the commission so that federal minority participation guidelines were satisfied. Poppell guaranteed federal funding of county projects, and although he was never indicted for any crime, some of those funds are said to have lined his and his relatives' pockets.

Sheriff Poppell already had, therefore, a respected black churchman, Deacon Thorpe, on the commission, and when Thurnell Alston ran against him the year after the shooting, the at-large voters returned the sheriff's yes-man to office. Once again, Poppell proved his clout. Among other things he controlled in the county was the selection of grand juries, and soon after the first election Alston lost, these white men exercised what they thought would be a routine bit of county business by appointing the brother of the county grand jury's foreman to the county board of education. "And to create that opening, they displaced Chatham Jones, the only black member of the board of education. Thus, operating out of a system of patronage and nepotism, the all-white grand jury created in its own likeness the all-white school board to preside over the majority-black public schools." The grand jury also had the responsibility of selecting trial juries, and in such fashion, the system took vengeance on blacks who had demonstrated a raw, as-yet undisciplined, power after the shooting. The black community organized, and its leaders contacted lawyers with the state's legal-aid network, the Georgia Legal Services Program. These "young, upper-middle-class, mostly urban, mostly Yankee lawyers," most of whom were white and nearly all of whom shared the messianic idealism of early 1970's radicalism, were eager to help once they realized that enfranchised blacks-the county had roughly 44 percent of its blacks registered to vote-could effectively be cut out of local politics even when they constituted a majority of the population. With help from the legal-aid attorneys, the black community eventually won a series of suits that by 1979 stipulated a random, nondiscriminatory jury selection process and that divided Darien, the county seat, into two wards, one of which is majority black, and McIntosh County into four districts, two of which are majority black.

To achieve these ends, the black community transformed itself into an activist, cohesive bloc not at all reluctant to use tactics of confrontation, including boycotts, that had been successful elsewhere. They had a charismatic leader in Thurnell Alston, who appeared to relish the challenge. He became the first independent black man, untethered to the Poppell political machine, to be elected to the county commission. Greene's description of that long, hot election day in August, 1978, combines levity with suspense to emphasize the historic nature of the occasion. She says that the celebration that night, one she recounts in vivid, you-are-there prose, was over a principle, hardfought and won, "the principle that if a person is freezing to death in the winter, she shouldn't have to pray for sheetrock. Municipal services ought to provide her with some."Equally momentous for this backwater of Georgia-and, probably, Greene does not give it the weight it deserves in her chronology-was the opening of the final stretch of Interstate 95 through the county. Along U.S. 17, the no-tell motels, the clip joints, the gambling dens, the rough bars dried up from lack of business and went away, and, suddenly, it was less necessary, less profitable, to control county politics in order to assure that highway robbery remained legal. Or, as Greene puts it more poetically, "The old highway became a long, hot daydream of Florida."Meanwhile, Alston annoyed his fellow commissioners by pushing a social program while they wrangled over attracting industry, paving roads, and promoting business. His accomplishments may appear small compared to changes elsewhere, but for the rural, isolated county, they were extraordinary.

In his decade in office, ignoring, defying the sheriff at every turn, taking the issues to the public, he oversaw the creation of a hospital authority and a physician-staffed medical building deep in the county. He brought plumbing and water to settlements where people used outhouses and wells. He arranged for renovation assistance programs that aided homeowners in adding bathrooms to their cabins. He saw that a multipurpose building was built for the antebellum black community on Sapelo Island. He attracted a grant to build a mental facility out in the county.

He did all these things without help or hindrance from the sheriff, who was too smart not to read the writing on the wall.

Local politics in Georgia are notoriously byzantine in their good-old-boy machinations, and so in a peculiar twist of fate, Thurnell Alston, in his capacity as county commissioner, served as a pallbearer at Poppell's funeral in 1979. It is fitting death-of-an-era symbolism, especially seen against the interstate's eclipsing of commerce, legal and otherwise, along the busiest road through the county.

Had the story ended here, Praying for Sheetrock would have been a compelling study of current events, one that could be universalized to what was happening across the South. Unfortunately, the story has a coda, one equally relevant to what is happening all across the country.

Thurnell Alston and his wife, Rebecca, lost a child in a mindless accident. They drifted apart, and Alston became embittered, indifferent, and eventually, careless. A local spokesman against drugs, he was nevertheless nabbed in a sting operation and sentenced to five years in prison for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and for using a telephone to facilitate the sale of drugs. In spite of what some in the county saw as ultimate treason to his own people, Thurnell Alston had helped effect great changes in McIntosh County.

In 1992, two members of the McIntosh county commission were black, the chairman, elected on an at-large basis, was white. Two members of Darien's city council were black; the mayor, again elected at-large, was white. Half of the county's deputy sheriffs were black, as was half of Darien's police force. In 1989, two black women were elected in at-large countywide elections to positions as superintendent of schools and tax commissioner.

Praying for Sheetrock, among other honors, was nominee for one of the National Book Awards. It is worthy of all the critical and popular praise it has received. Beautifully written, perfectly paced, and authentic in voice and action, the book is a model history, one less gifted writers will have trouble emulating. Its greatest success is in dramatizing one small chapter of important, very human, history.

McIntosh County's people, for the most part, are still desperately poor, and in spite of the well-deserved attention stirred by this book, the county is still an economic wasteland. Yet its people, true to their traditions, still pray for help to a busy God. More practically, they have learned that they have the United States Constitution on their side as well.

referencesAtlantic Journal Constitution. September 22, 1991, p. N8.

Chicago Tribune. December 1, 1991, VI, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 2, 1991, p. 13.

Commonweal. CXVIII, December 6, 1991, p. 722.

Library Journal. CXVI, October 15, 1991, p. 106.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 15, 1991, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLIII, December 23, 1991, p. 821.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 3, 1991, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 40.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, November 24, 1991, p. 3.