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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On Dominion

Calvin Baker’s Dominion is easily one of the best books I’ve had the fortune to read this year. In the current publishing landscape, which seems dominated by collection after collection of short stories that barely keep themselves together over the course of a handful of pages, Dominion is a beautiful, sprawling story of Jasper Merian, a newly-freed slave who leaves Virginia for the Carolinas to build what is his home and what will become his legacy. Baker allows Dominion to sprawl in a way that proves both his love for his craft and his intellect, as he traces the Merian family for a decade, and in the process meditates on commitment, personal responsibility, love, and family. The story of Jasper Merian (which is the story of Dominion itself) is told in rich, lush fashion that ties the themes with the narrative, like a campfire tale that resonates long after the final word’s been spoken, reminiscent of the narratives of Toni Morrison and Edward Jones, as well as incantatory cultural mythologies.

All of this high praise for what I’ll unabashedly call a brilliant book led me to a bit of reserved nervous tension last week, when Georgia Center For The Book presented Calvin Baker reading at the Decatur Library for a small but polite crowd. The size of the crowd (as well as my apprehension) didn't matter, as the bright, spry Baker was warm, thoughtful, and a lot younger than I’d anticipated of someone capable of weaving, as he does, the intricate threads of stories lost through the ages with a gently insistent modern voice. “Dominion was inspired by my love of myth and the poetry of beginnings”, Baker said during his reading, and this is evident in the way that the conceptual aspects of the novel never over-ride Baker’s storytelling. The historical aspects of the novel (slavery as painted by approaching eventuality of Revolution) add a depth without a heaviness; it’s obvious Baker’s done his research but, once again, is more concerned with making sure the heart of Dominion beats with warm, authentic blood. As such, Baker passes along his accumulated historical knowledge through golden bits of prose, as when Jasper Merian discusses the impact of having once been enslaved but now living life as a free man with his son, telling him “I want to know when your sleep starts to feel different. After you wake before first light and realize you can sleep all the day and won’t nobody say nothing…the first time you sleep a night knowing the day before you and every one after that is yours. I want you to tell me when it starts to feel great to you.”

Soft, warm, but filled with hard-won truths of humanity, Dominion is that truly rare work of literary fiction that is both smart and captivatingly readable from beginning to end, and shines with the voice of Calvin Baker becoming a master craftsman, echoing with sounds of all the stories of the past and future to come.

-Russ Marshalek















Click to order Calvin Baker's Dominion at 25% off.


(author photo: Henry Leutwyler)

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