When a colleague recently loaned me a book, telling me it was about a high school teacher in hot water over teaching evolution, I wasn’t too excited. Wasn’t one Inherit the Wind enough? However, once I started reading, I discovered that Fred Chappell’s 1989 novel Brighten the Corner Where You Are has none of the pompous bluster of Inherit the Wind; it’s not a chest-thumping ode to “truth” and “scientific objectivity.” In fact, rather than dwelling on whether Darwin was right or wrong, the novel is much more interested in exploring a certain Pontius Pilate’s question: “What is truth?”
Chappell, a North Carolina writer, is both a poet and a novelist, but he’s also clearly a student of tall tales. Brighten the Corner Where You Are opens with high school teacher Joe Robert Kirkman telling his hunting buddies of the fearsome “devil-possum,” who is “black and yellow polka-dotted with long ugly claws and teeth and has got a face like a little old man with whiskers and mustaches and muttonchop sideburns.” Later that night, Joe Robert finds himself face-to-face with this beast he thought he had invented, and he finds himself reconsidering: “One trouble was that he had described his patchwork terror without truly imagining it, merely flinging silly words about. He hadn’t the least thought what it would actually be like to see the beast . . .”
Words are important, and on this single day in 1946, Joe Robert Kirkman finds that every falsehood he tells literally comes true. And he tells a lot of falsehoods. As the narrator says of Joe Robert, the “truth was so sacred to [him] that he generally refused to profane its sanctity with his worldly presence.”
So what does this all have to do with evolution vs. creationism? Refreshingly little. Joe Robert’s dreaded meeting with the school board is merely the climax toward which he thinks everything is building. The most important moments of the novel happen when Joe Robert is confronted with literal versions of the words he utters.
Joe Robert does, at one point during an exercise with his students, end up in a Socratic dialogue about evolution—with Socrates. Joe Robert expects Socrates to side with him—after all, Socrates was likewise accused of corrupting the youth. However, this just isn’t Joe Robert’s day. After getting Joe Robert to admit that new discoveries may one day overturn Darwin’s theories, Socrates utters the kicker: “You must forgive me then when my logic is faulty, for I have not been able to follow your reasoning. You believe that it is incumbent upon you to teach to students doctrines, which you say are no more than provisional and temporary, to the detriment of doctrines that their parents believe to be inescapable truths.”
When Joe Robert gets irritated at this unexpected turn in the dialogue, Socrates reminds him that he has always said Socrates was one of his heroes. “Yes, I used to say that,” says Joe Robert. “But that was before I got to know you personally.”
And that, I think, is the heart of Brighten the Corner Where You Are. How much do we really believe what we say? And, even more importantly, do we really want what we say we believe in to be real? We may say, “Lord, Lord,” but how many of us would actually welcome Jesus if we met him in the flesh today?
Brighten the Corner Where You Are is a delightful and thought-provoking break from the culture wars. Rather than getting bogged down in “provisional and temporary” debates*, Fred Chappell’s novel ponders the inescapable truth of truth itself.
*I don’t mean to say that some of these provisional and temporary debates, including the ones about evolution, don’t touch on issues of eternal importance. But we do tend to get wrapped up in picking sides and uttering words that we might want to retract if we were to be confronted with them in a real way.