The vivid stories of McMullen Circle by Heather Newton take place at the fictional McMullen Boarding School in the fictional town of Tonola Falls, Georgia. But readers familiar with north Georgia will recognize in McMullen the real-life Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, which faces US-441 from a mowed hillside. When Newton writes of McMullen that “The school’s buildings were made from stone quarried out of the mountain. A high rock wall behind the administration building held back the mountain,” she might as well be describing Rabun Gap-Nacoochee. The same is true when, in the final story, Newton describes the Great Wallenda crossing Tonola Gorge on a tightrope. The scene, with its headstands as the tightrope rocks in the wind, may seem too outlandish to be believed, but in 1970 Wallenda really did walk a quarter mile across Tallulah Gorge.
A reader might wonder why Newton didn’t use actual place-names and dig a little deeper in her research, which would have had the benefit of thickening the slim book, but the choice to fictionalize the school and its surroundings gave her leeway to make some productive choices. We get the sense that the students at McMullen are mostly privileged, for instance, whereas the charter of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee was to educate the children of poor families in what was then a very remote region (the school didn’t become fully private until 1977). The shift in class teases to the surface a disparity between the boarding students, who barely figure in the book, and the less privileged children of the school’s faculty and staff. The latter range from Lorna, the precocious daughter of the young headmaster, to the mischievous Domiano boys, whose mother works in the cafeteria. Their mother’s boss, who happens to be Black, has a studious daughter, Edwina, who must ride a bus many miles to a public school, and the question of whether Edwina should be admitted to McMullen—or, more pointedly, whether Lorna’s father will have the courage to recommend her admittance to the board—becomes a major plot point.
Along the same lines, the fictional city of Cordelia may bear some resemblance to Clayton or Cleveland, but Cordelia, unlike those real-life cities, is home to the Cordelia Six: five men and one woman who firebomb a local movie theater that refuses to let Black people enter. Fallout from the bombing—and the question of racial equity, more generally—carries powerfully through the collection. In “The Stole,” for example, Lorna’s mother, Sarah, brings as her guest to the annual gala the lone female member of the Cordelia Six, a white woman who happens to be the granddaughter of an important benefactor. Sarah, an adulterer whose righteous streak, ironically, provides the moral compass of the book, may expect a confrontation that will embarrass her husband, the risk-averse headmaster. But, surprisingly, the two women seem to take comfort in each other. They leave together in companionable silence, and the final image of the story is elegant and surprising: “William pulled the car around and its headlights created shadow women, one hulking, one stooped and frail, until the spaces between them disappeared and they became one creature.”
Another surprising encounter comes at the end of “Once and Always,” a story about a decorated World War II veteran, Burton, who tours the country with his second wife, selling books at churches and VFWs. Between gigs he kills time at restaurants and bars where he regales fellow vets with the same stories, hoping to cadge free drinks and food. At one session, at a VFW near the McMullen campus, he gets into a conversation about the Cordelia Six. He learns that one of the Six is a Black Vietnam veteran. The other veterans—all of them white and drunk or on their way—circulate a petition to keep the man, whom they expect to be executed, out of Arlington Cemetery. Burton disagrees, volubly, and his meal doesn’t get paid for. Feeling scorned (and buzzed) he finds his finds his way to the jail, where he manages to get an audience with the young veteran, whose name is Reginald Aldritch. Burton tells Aldritch that he’s aware of the petition and will do everything in his power to make sure Aldritch gets buried in a military graveyard no matter his offense, whereupon:
Aldritch’s mouth opened a half inch. “Let me get this straight. You in here to make my funeral arrangements?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Mister, instead of worrying about where they going to bury me once they electrocute me, why don’t you do something about me getting killed in the first place? Make a donation to my legal defense fund or something?”
“I didn’t mean—”
Aldritch pushed back his chair and called to the deputy, “I’m ready to go.”
The deputy unlocked the door and led Aldritch out, leaving Mackie in the room. Mackie could hear Aldritch as he walked down the hall, telling anybody who would listen, “Mother fucker planning my funeral.”
Aldritch’s response is understandable, but it comes as a surprise in the context of the story. That’s because Newton has done the work of getting us on Burton’s side, despite the bad first impression he makes. By the time he meets Aldritch, we’re almost rooting for him, and so we get our comeuppance alongside him.
The book is full of such surprising encounters, many of them occasioned by struggles with, and misunderstandings about, race. Racial equity plays such a big role in the book that it’s easy to imagine a version in which the Cordelia Six are even more central. The publisher’s website describes McMullen Circle as a collection of linked stories, which is an overused term that suggests readers are wary of unlinked stories, but in this case the term is apt. Really, the stories are linked so closely in time and space that I wonder if the material couldn’t have been expanded into a novel. The novel form would have had the benefit of giving the book a stronger through line, and might, counterintuitively, have allowed more space for material not closely tied to any one story, since the story form requires such concision. I found myself wanting more summarized background material about the places and characters. And the most important characters, like Sarah and Lorna, deserve more page space in general. Lorna might remind readers of Mick in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, whose eccentric daydreams and tomboyish pursuits give way, by the end of that novel, to conventional femininity, but there isn’t room for such a transition in McMullen Circle. Carson McCullers’s famous book is also in its bones a collection of linked stories, but McCullers’s willingness to move her characters through time, and to take more risks with them, makes the book feel like much more. That there’s such potential in the pages of McMullen Circle is a testament to the skill and sensitivity of its author.
About the Reviewer
Bradley Bazzle is the author of the story collection Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science (C&R, 2020) and the novel Trash Mountain (Red Hen, 2018). His stories appear in the Missouri Review, New England Review, Epoch, Beloit Fiction Journal, and in the Summer 2021 issue of Colorado Review ("Scuttling and Creeping"). He lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, Georgia.