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A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of His Death [Buy Now]

University of South Carolina Press
By William Baldwin
203 pages
$24.95

When local residents read William Baldwin’s new novel, A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of his Death, they’ll recognize some familiar places, those that were here 100 years ago. A reader might say, “Why, I’ve been to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Broad Street. If only there were still trolleys, I too might take the blue line up to Colonial Lake.”

It’s a tricky issue for a local reviewer — does the pleasure found in familiarity confer an unfair advantage? Difficult to say. The fact is, Charleston sells.

Another local novelist, Charlie Geer, was asked by the publisher to re-title his recent Outbound: The Curious Secession of Latter-Day Charleston. Had to get the C-word in there somehow.

Many people who’ve visited here will read Baldwin’s book and remember things from their walking tours. The Four Corners of Law, the former brothels on East Bay. They too will imagine what it would have been like to live here back when men were men and honor was upheld, before things were ruined by the Bauhaus and the Civil Rights movement.

The first 134 pages of this short novel, set in the late 1800s, provide, if not a lot of plot, just the time warp most travelers come to Charleston to experience.

Our fair city’s cornices and porticos almost literally come to life. Characters don’t hurry, they hasten, and homes are detailed with flaming hearths, sconces, brocade drapery, and canopy beds (more about the beds in a moment). All in all, it’s just the Victorian portrait that neo-historicists would like to restore Charleston to.

“Yes, David had had thoughts of Abbie. More than once … No, often he had imagined the two of them together. But such a wish required him to be a widower.”

A lot of that.

But thankfully, it’s not just thoughts and lascivious flashes of bare ankle. Baldwin is a former commercial fisherman and contractor, and this is no bodice-ripper.

The one advantage of a Victorian novel, even one narrated in the pedantic tone of a fictional contemporary, is that the Victorians’ sexual repression is well noted, and so Baldwin packs this story with material to be repressed. We’ve got the rakish New Orleanian scoundrel, a terrible husband who only smoothes over marital discord with nookie. (Three times a day on the honeymoon. Nice work, André.)

And — without resorting to cliché — we’ve got the hooker with the heart of gold and, of course, the young Swiss governess who causes all the trouble. Helene’s ample, “to die for” bosom is always pushing out of its thin muslin sheath, and apparently her ankles, when flashed, are pretty hot as well.

Then, after 134 pages of letter-writing, Civil War stories, and demands of satisfaction, an amazing thing happens. The hero of the novel, David Lawton, dies. (I’m not giving anything away here: it’s on the book jacket, not to mention in the title.) And everything starts popping. We’re hiding bodies and holding the trial of the century, and, in a nice twist, finding out why this historical novel was “written” in 1907.

And it all really happened, down in the part of town where we go to drink on the weekends. Or much of it did, anyway. Jack Kerouac did little to conceal that Dean Moriarty was Neal Cassady and Bull Lee was William S. Burroughs. Baldwin takes it one step further, flat-out telling us in the preface that Lawton is a fictionalized Frank Dawson, former editor of The News and Courier.

Dawson was a heroic figure, much noted for publishing an edition the morning after the great earthquake of 1886. A Catholic, he was knighted by the Pope for ending dueling in the South. He came from England to fight for the Confederacy but was considered a progressive, cranking out opinion after opinion that shook up the old guard and pushed Charleston forward. (Yes, an editorial writer for The Post and Courier, a progressive.)

William Baldwin brings this forgotten local legend back in his achingly well-researched work.

His novel is much like the plump and alluring Helene, sheathed in layers of flouncy petticoats. Once you get under all that coarse old fabric, it’s juicily well-endowed with a rich little piece ofaction.