Friday, October 5, 2012

Former Charlotte judge pens novel

A black man walks along a dark Alabama road. A car of teenaged white boys approaches. One boy throws an egg, striking its target.

The teenagers haven’t anticipated what happens next. The man turns, his face contorted in fear and anger. And he begins to chase them.

This powerful scene comes early in “Leaving Tuscaloosa,” the debut novel from Chapel Hill’s Walter Bennett. If it reads as especially real, it’s because Bennett plucked it from his own life. He wasn’t the kid who threw the egg. But he was in the car.
Bennett, a retired UNC Chapel Hill law professor, was a lawyer and state district court judge in Charlotte in the 1970s and early ’80s. His wife, Betsy, was a Mecklenburg school board member and is director of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

He was about 15 when he sat in the car on the real-life Tuscaloosa night he fictionalizes in his novel, and he says the event helped change his world view.

When the assaulted man gave chase, he suddenly saw a person, not some anonymous black man.

“It seemed like a good scene to start a novel about the process of becoming morally conscious of your society,” says Bennett, 69.

“Leaving Tuscaloosa” (Fuze; $16.95), is the story of two young men, one black, one white, both on moral journeys. It’s set in 1962, just before Alabama exploded with violence during the civil rights era.
One man, Acee, is a black teenager whose activist brother is about to be hunted like an animal. The other is Richeboux, a middle-class white kid haunted by his own actions.

Though “Leaving Tuscaloosa” is just out, it was a 2010 finalist for the Bellwether Prize, now called the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The award, created by novelist Barbara Kingsolver, honors unpublished fiction that addresses social justice issues.
That honor helped affirm years Bennett has worked to develop his craft. He contemplated writing fiction, he says, since his days as an English major. But in college, he assumed novelists were all geniuses. He figured he wasn’t. So he went into law.

In 1999, he retired to pursue writing. It was a long road. “It was a process of learning how much I didn’t know and how far I had to go,” he says. “It took a conversion and even some therapy to turn my mind from linear legal thinking.”

Like many Southerners, Bennett says, racial issues have been central in his own moral journey. Writing helps him gain understanding. He’s now at work on a novel set just after the Civil War.

Bennett wil give a reading 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at Park Road Books.