Picks and Pans Review: South of Haunted Dreams: a Ride Through Slavery's Old Back Yard

updated 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Eddy L. Harris

In Mississippi Solo (1988), Harris canoed down Old Man River; in Native Stranger (1992), he journeyed through Africa. This newest work finds the literary adventurer buzzing without itinerary through Dixie, hunched over a gleaming blue motorcycle. Like its predecessors, Haunted Dreams delivers a revealing excursion that is part travelogue, part quest for identity. But what to make of this trip?

To Harris, a St. Louis-based writer, the South is no blank slate. In the mid-'30s his father was humiliated and run out of town near Louisville, Ky., for admiring the wrong woman. His great-great-great-grandfather was a freed slave from Goochland, Va. Despite Harris's abiding fears, though, the South is also a place he might learn to call home.

The drama here comes from Harris's attempts to reconcile the monstrous South of his imagination with the acceptance and hospitality he continually receives from both blacks and whites. Frequently his ominous expectations go unfulfilled; his fears of lynchings, rednecks and rampant segregation belong mostly to a bygone era. Only once, during a pit stop at a Tennessee gas station, does he actually find and argue with a man "wailing to call me 'nigger.' "

Haunted Dreams reads at times like a Southern Walden: Woods, tobacco fields, North Carolina's Outer Banks—all evoke a much needed mystic serenity that contrasts with Harris's probing thoughts on history, race, color and identity. Those musings are initially sensual, ironic and confiding. But with repetition they become exhausting. It is, however, the precision of Harris's prose—his ability to capture rage, paranoia and wonder—that keeps you reading and believing that these wanderings have brought him to some fragile peace. (Simon & Schuster, $19)

From Our Partners