Lyrical, riveting, and haunting from its opening lines, None But the Righteous is an extraordinary debut that signals the arrival of an unforgettable new voice in contemporary fiction
In seventeenth-century Peru, St. Martin de Porres was torn from his body after death. His bones were pillaged as relics, and his spirit was said to inhabit those bones. Four centuries later, amid the havoc of Hurricane Katrina, nineteen-year-old Ham escapes New Orleans with his only valued possession: a pendant handed down from his foster mother, Miss Pearl. There’s something about the pendant that has always gripped him, and the curiosity of it has grown into a kind of comfort.
When Ham finally embarks on a fraught journey back home, he seeks the answer to a question he cannot face: Is Miss Pearl still alive? Ham travels from Atlanta to rural Alabama, and from one young woman to another, as he evades the devastation that awaits him in New Orleans. Catching sight of a freedom he’s never known, he must reclaim his body and mind from the spirit who watches over him, guides him, and seizes possession of him.
James debuts with the diffuse account of a young man's travails in the months after a hurricane devastates his hometown of New Orleans. Ham unknowingly carries a centuries-old spirit in a locket around his neck, that of Martin, a Dominican priest. It is through Martin's eyes that the reader sees Ham, whose speech and movements Martin controls. Like Martin, Ham finds people he can latch on to. First, Ham tracks down Mayfly, a transient he met as a child, in Atlanta. Next, he returns to Deborah, with whom he'd escaped a submerged New Orleans for rural Alabama. Her family represents an accepting, but monotonous, life to him, and he itches to return to New Orleans, resisting Martin's attempts to make him settle down with Deborah, which would make him easier for Martin to inhabit. James creates intricate character portraits, lush with details of family histories and pathologies, but the extended mood piece doesn't really amount to a story. Though the narrative lacks urgency, it effectively imparts the protagonist's feeling of trying to find his way to a home that no longer exists. Readers will have to be patient to get the payoff here.