A Healthy Fear Of Man (US) is the second in a series of Paul Little books. I must confess to have skipped the first, but that puts me in the position of being able to highly recommend this book whether you read ‘The Science Of Paul’ or not. This book has very strong legs and can definitely stand alone.
PAUL LITTLE has inherited his grandfather’s house and land and is living in it as a total outcast. When visitors arrive, he does his best to shun them no matter what their intentions. There’s a little girl (GILLY) who want to fish in his pond, there’s a young African lady (LUISA) who wants to give him free meals from the church and there’s an old-timer and ex-sheriff (BO). He does his best to keep them away, but for various reasons they refuse to listen.
The good news for Paul is that he’s finally coming close to finding peace in his life, even if that means barely surviving from what he can eat from the land and has lost any real need to keep his personal hygiene routines up to scratch. The bad news is that Gilly is found dead in his pond one morning and he’s the main suspect, predominantly because he’s black and living in a backward county in North Carolina.
Bo, indebted to Paul’s grandfather for saving his life way back, joins Paul in his attempt to clear his name and Louisa has a big heart that means she can’t help but join the team.
What follows is a series of brutal encounters as corrupt politicians, vengeful brothers, loose policemen and wild drug dealers are all sucked into the action as Paul stirs up the muddy waters.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s thought provoking and gripping at the same time.
Aaron Philip Clark can really handle plot and back up his ideas with well-written action sequences. As the novel plays out, he keeps a steady hand and right through to the end.
What I found particularly impressive, though, was the opening third of the book where things are set up. It’s a wonderful beginning, where Paul Little has cut himself off from the world to find an uneasy peace. He’s become a scavenger, but his life experience has prepared him well for the hardships he encounters. He stays away from people, for it is people who add complication to life. Relationships are tough, so in keeping people away, he’s safer and life is easier. And being alone is safe; by avoiding others he is able to keep his darker self under wraps:
‘I once had a beast inside me, one whose nature at times even eluded me, but since being on the land it appears the beast has been beaten into submission and these days it is still.’
Paul has a fear that when he gets close to people, what he has is contagious:
‘People around me...they catch hell – they catch it like a sickness.’
Unfortunately for Paul, he’s all too human. Isolation isn’t going to work because people aren’t going to leave him alone. This means he forms attachments to people and develops feelings for them in spite of his intentions. As soon as these feelings take root, he is returned to the complications of social existence With these building relationships come responsibilities, so when Paul tries to find out who killed Gilly, he is eventually more motivated by finding the murderer for her rather for the sake of his freedom.
Paul Little has a very positive view of human life, even though on the surface it may seem bleak. We’re all capable of making rash decisions or of acting entirely by animal impulse. Eventually, some people are going to end up getting caught when they’ve lost it:
‘For some, all it takes is one bad day, one bad decision – a crime of passion is what the cops call it, others call it temporary insanity – I call it human nature.’
A Healthy Fear Of Man is a serious book that’s a hell of a lot of fun to read.
I may be reaching here, but I was reminded of Ralph Ellison and his ‘Invisible Man’ in the early stages. Clark may have even offered a tiny reference point here as Paul Little talks about advice his grandfather gave him about being a black man:
‘You’ve got to keep invisible, boy. Stay out of the law’s view. They can’t kill what they can’t see.’
If Paul Little is being invisible, can he still have an impact upon a society where justice is multi-faceted, the law is corrupt, where people are struggling to get by and where racism is prevalent?
The biggest message in the book, the way I see it, is to all of us.
Should we go about congratulating ourselves on the progress the world has made over the years? Has racism been put to bed so that the world lives together as one happy family? In nations where laws are set and seem equal on the surface, is this equality carried through in all pockets of that nation?
Of course not. We need to be vigilant, active and avoid complacency. Take me, for example. I write about a black author and cite Ellison - is that something I need to check myself for (I still think that cap fits, though, and maybe you could let me know).
The book points a finger at the Southern States of the US and challenges them to find out whether the New South with all of the rosy connotations, isn’t just the Old South with a flaking coat of paint.
Which is where I find myself going out of my depth.
It’s a great book. One to be enjoyed and to be considered. Very good indeed.