One of the novel’s most striking facets is that it observes black lives exclusively through the eyes of white characters. The voices of the book’s black characters appear in dialogue, but otherwise they do not speak for themselves. The reader does not have the privilege of accessing Caliban’s thoughts... Instead, we are forced into uncomfortable proximity with the men who tell themselves that the town is better off without its black population... As Kelley’s writing became even more adventurous, readers — and eventually, publishers — fell away... His work is long overdue a revival.
Yet for all of Kelley’s sympathetic characterisation, his ending returns us to the horrors of race hate. A new introduction to the novel ascribes Kelley’s literary decline to the fact that “many white readers didn’t want a black writer telling them what they thought, especially when so much of it was withering”.
Today the book offers us an unflinching study of the southern white American psyche at the cusp of the civil rights movement: its belligerence against change, the incomprehension and anger. It is woeful to think that almost 60 years later, Kelley’s story seems just as timely and as urgent, but what a gift to literature that we have rediscovered it.
It proves another great find, and a win for today’s readers across the world, who can delve into an imaginative, brilliantly observed world of the 20th-century Deep South in turmoil... Kelley delivers his observations with caustic humour and surprising compassion. The comparisons of his debut to the books of James Baldwin and Faulkner are justified... A Different Drummer is a fascinating account of a man, weary of words and politicking, who makes a seemingly nonsensical decision in the eyes of society. And yet, as a response to centuries of injustice for his people, it proves an eminently sensible action.
A Different Drummer is itself a fairy tale, in the best sense of the word: simple, timeless, mythic... this is a novel about strategic silence: refusal to speak, refusal to engage. Kelley’s formal masterstroke is to tell the novel exclusively from the viewpoints of the white characters... His is a true novelist’s gaze, sharpened by the conviction that if you look long and hard enough, you will always understand... Kelley’s novel might be a fantasy — the dramatic grassroots movement he describes never happened, and likely never could have. But it’s a fantasy that’s still relevant and powerful today.