One Kind Favor
by Kevin McIvoy
Available May 18, 2021
Fasten your seatbelts. One Kind Favor is a wildly original and deliciously subversive novel, told with profound intelligence and free-wheeling wit. Inspired by a true event—the 2014 lynching of a young Black man in a town in North Carolina—the book takes place in the small fictional town of Cord, population 2,100, some of whom are spirits or “Presences.” The narrator, an amiable omniscient voice expressing the common perspective of the townspeople, explains that Cord is “where many of the injured dead refuse to stay invisible,” a phenomenon associated with the area’s one-hundred-and-fifty-year history of race murders dating back to when the first slaves arrived in chains. “We understood that white Presences and Black Presences were regulars, that they stayed, returned, were never gone long.” Even the townspeople have trouble distinguishing Presences from living people or animals, drawing the reader into a world recognizable as current-day America, while plunging us into a state of heightened awareness of hidden meanings and otherworldly occurrences. The ghosts of the town—its spiritual conscience—assume responsibility for revealing the truths of bigotry and racial crimes that the town tries to ignore and continues to perpetuate.
Much of the action takes place at the town’s combined bar and consignment store, whose partially crossed-out name, “StanleyAckerStanley’s,” reminds us that this is not a typical establishment. The bar and store are run by three people: Minister Stanley, a mixed-race man of God, who, after trying out several religions but settling on none, is considered of “Mixed Religion;” his son, Junior, whom he considers “a rigidly moral and fluidly amoral Prayer Patriot Proud Boy;” and Miss Acker, a heavily tattooed and pierced middle-aged (or possibly centuries older—no one is quite sure) punk provocateur from New York. Like the postmodernist writer Kathy Acker, on whom she is presumably based, Acker had been a successful transgressive writer in New York before moving to Cord. Throughout the book, she is a source of gleeful wrath, energy, and wordplay—at one point boasting that in New York she
“Was. By the way. A. Fucking. Phenom. Major. Firebomb of The Literary Cruise Lines… Did my pirate thing. Ripped out the usual furnishings of the publishing mansions. Rolled out the treasure-hoarder bookclubbers for their small loot. Sunk the old fleets of old fuckfarts sailing the tired, tame overcharted mildwaters of the meta-arts. I. Am. Fucking. Major. Here. Be. Dragon.”
Having arrived in Cord in 2008, Acker is now involved in a ménage à trois with two teenage boys—one Black, one white—who are best friends at the local high school. The threesome live together at the local residential hotel called the Helltel, owned by an elderly couple who are fully supportive of the arrangement. On the night of November 8, 2016—when Donald Trump is elected President—the Black teenager, Lincoln Lennox, is lynched. Investigators arrive from out of town, make a cursory inquiry, and quickly dismiss the case as a suicide, ignoring the rope burns around his ankles and wrists, and attributing his scratched and badly beaten face to “ant injuries.” The matter is covered up and forgotten by the authorities.
But the murder and coverup rankle many of the locals, including Lincoln’s best friend Woolman, their girlfriend Acker, and Lincoln’s mother Jadia, who finds him hanging from the swing set at the playground, his neck cinched with belts he did not own, his feet in sneakers too small for him. Peculiar things begin to happen in town. Woolman’s estranged father suddenly appears, emerging after twelve years from the nearby Ephesus swamp, a dumping site for victims of racial violence. A mysterious Black man, referred to as Mr. Panther, also arrives, wearing two machetes in scabbards, one at each hip. He is on a mission, we later learn, to find the remains of his nieces who were lynched the previous year and buried in the same swamp. A hangman’s noose and Lincoln’s own gray sneakers attached to a swing set are ignited and found in flames on the town square, prompting a second investigation that again yields nothing. Two of the out-of-town investigators wake up one morning in the Helltel to find themselves hog-tied together; one is later thrown off the second-floor balcony and critically injured. Restless spirits appear to be moving through town, some of whom the townspeople recognize as Presences, including an extremely articulate and irreverent dog named Webb, and a mockingbird, believed to be the Minister’s beloved daughter who died at fifteen, and now returns as a bird to take up with Mr. Panther as his wife.
In the midst of these strange occurrences and characters, our narrator offers incisive observations and commentary on contemporary life, remarking on the erosion of civic responsibility and civility, and the loss of humanity. He notes, for example, the soul-sucking effect of technology during a Skype session among three of the characters:
Something like heat lightning pulsed on the screen and in the faces there. Light flickers to life or dies within us but in looking upon each other’s artificial faces we hardly notice, we notice less and less. We forget how to surveil as we come under surveillance, by repeatedly checkmarking, “I Agree” at the bottom of the User Agreement.
Other passages offer scathing exposés of how the flames of bigotry and hatred are stoked, how ordinary people can be lured into beliefs and convictions contrary to their own interests, motivated by their basic animal instinct of fear: “[W]e have learned to pray in the name of the fatherfear and the fearother and the fearafter. We, a chosen Christian nation, are fear’s ministers, fear’s ministers’ cowed daughters and cowherd sons.… We have faith in guns.”
McIlvoy, a distinguished writing professor, editor, and author of seven previous books, has created a multi-layered novel of vital importance, demonstrating how language is used for power, for play, for music, and for indoctrination. His words can turn brutally cutting and delightfully gleeful with the curve of a comma. Acker provides a number of scorching screeds, referring to the town’s bigots as “…the birthers, the white supremacists and misogynists, the hoaxers and false-flaggers, the Foxfuckers and the Mercerators, the Kochsuckers, the Popists and Bannonpealers, the Putin accomplices, the religious extremists-terrorists…”
Through Cord’s unnamed narrator, McIlvoy also shows how well-intentioned people—“good poor-middle-class-poor-poorer-ever-poorer people who had become utterly self-absorbed while holding down three jobs and trying to stay alive on the collapsing bridge between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries in Merika the Former Democracy…” turned from supporting Obama in 2008 to demonizing him and then voting for Trump in 2016. After the economic crash of 2008, “we wanted to seem to be alive, and we elected a president who could feel his heart beneath his hand. A flawed man, too Black for some of us and not Black enough for others, but one who meant the allegiances he pledged. We felt hope—most of us here in Cord felt real hope.”
But that hope came “with an expiration date of about six months:”
By June 2009 we hated Obama, who was beyond us in his patient and decent and compassionate nature; his resistance to corruption was beyond our tolerance; his resilience was beyond our comprehension…
The idea of a Black man as president was so impossible for us to sustain for his entire first year, we wanted to see him killed; if that was not possible, we wanted to be killed—but killed better than on September 11, 2001, and better than on September 25, 2008, the crash date for the economic collapse. We wanted the happy poisonmeals the gilded people live on, the supersize emoluments that go down good in your executive tower suite or on your personal country-club golf cart or protected by a fake injury from the Arlington rain in your golden four-poster bed at TV time or with your stormy pornstar companion after taking a knee at a Florida resort Cracker Graham church service you left early for a bonesaw lesson with a Saudi prince.
These bursts of social and political commentary are interwoven with the intriguing comings and goings of the townsfolk. In the months following Lincoln’s murder, Junior Stanley and others plan for the town’s annual springtime Soldier’s Joy Festival, a popular weeklong event featuring live music and booths selling local crafts, food, and firearms. People travel from far away to enjoy the music and festivities and to purchase guns and assault weapons. Thanks to the focused public relations campaign of the NRA, “[t]he main hobby of most folks here…turned with breakneck speed from time-honored civic and familial hunting traditions to blind stockpiling of human-killing military-grade weapons.”
A subplot develops in which Woolman’s estranged father, now reunited with his son, reaches out (via Skype) to Marie, the wife he abandoned twelve years earlier. Marie, a born-again Christian, xenophobe, and devout supporter of “firepower,” is an administrator for a large corporation, managing a chain of People’s Dollar Stores, staffed by illegal immigrants paid low wages. She is one of two characters in the novel to undergo a crisis of conscience; toward the end of the book, Marie makes the choice to give up the privileges afforded her as a disciple of the company’s white supremacist policies and values. Refusing to participate in a sting operation coordinated by ICE, local police, and her employer to arrest undocumented workers, she loses her job, and comes to appreciate her son’s attachment to Acker, his outrage at Lincoln’s murder, and his decision to go to college and major in Environmental Studies. In a fortuitous turn of events, Acker, who has received payment for a screenplay, offers to fund Woolman’s college education. Acker announces that she will be leaving Cord to assume new responsibilities as “Red Planet Governess for the first Mars settlements” (it has become clear by now that she, too, is a Presence). Marie will take over Acker’s job at the consignment bar.
One Kind Favor is a rich and carefully constructed creation that works on many levels and in several dimensions, with a cast of two dozen characters as irresistible and impossibly complex as you are likely to find in a novel of 250 pages. The book is at once biting satire, an edgy love story, an eloquent family drama, a host of ghost stories, and most importantly, an exposé of how power corrupts; how communities absorb and manifest the poison they are offered by organizations and people of wealth and self-anointed supremacy, guided by their own interests and ulterior motives. The deeper we look, the more pervasive the power seems to extend, choking off our freedom and humanity. Or, as Acker says, “America, look at you now: the larger you make your prisons, the smaller your prison.”
HELEN FREMONT, a lawyer and writer, is the author of The Escape Artist, an “Editor’s Choice” book by the New York Times. Her previous book, After Long Silence, was a national bestseller. Her work has appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and other publications.