Bootlicker began more than a decade ago with a question.
What would anyone do if faced with the choice that confronted young Ike Washington?
There is no perfect answer, and there is no correct answer. There is, however, a novel I’ve launched today that is built on the question and the conversation I hope it will provoke.
The novel began as a short story called “Twisted Pinky.” Classmates in my graduate workshops at Johns Hopkins University encouraged me to expand the piece, one kindly offering that I was “on to something.”
“Twisted Pinky” grew into a novel built on a pivotal event that occurs in 1959. The working title was, “Hard Way Out.”
Ike is a black teenager living in a small town in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement is in full, wild bloom. Racial violence is rampant. One day Ike and a friend sneak off for a beer in the woods.
In the forest, they approach a clearing and hear a man pleading for mercy. Ike freezes at the sight of a Klan lynching led by the local judge. The other teen bolts.
The Klansmen catch Ike and present a startling choice: join the dead man or help the judge win black support so he can advance in state politics. The logic is beyond Ike’s grasp. The man who lynched one black man wants his help appealing to blacks statewide?
But Judge Lander McCauley knows the old ways are coming to an end. Perhaps the lynching was his exclamation point. To maintain his political ascent, he must have black support. And for that, he must have a secret liaison in the black community, someone he can personally train and control. Fate delivered the perfect young man.
Terrified, Ike agrees. An act of brutality ensures there will always be, as the judge puts it, “order in the court.”
One year turns into five, five turn into 10, 10 turn into 20. Ike becomes a power in his own right, U.S. Senator Lander McCauley’s man behind the scenes in every black enclave throughout the state.
Ike’s family has money and respect. The days of forcing him to cooperate are long gone. He and McCauley are the unlikeliest of political allies. By 1992, Ike stands poised to become the first black congressman elected in South Carolina since the Civil War.
But there is the guilt, the ever-present, all consuming guilt, and Ike’s knowledge that he rose to power on the judge’s bloody coattails, and helped the white-robed murderer rise from judge to congressman, and then to United States senator.
The saga of Ike Washington and Lander McCauley is less about race than about choices and character. The book is about guilt and the tricky path to redemption. It will take readers where TV cameras are never invited, to back rooms where decisions are made, futures are decided, and the line between right and wrong is not so easily defined.
Now that you know the story, how do you judge Ike Washington?
How will the voters judge him when a young reporter reveals his secret just before Election Day?
Most of all, how will Ike judge himself after everyone else has spoken? Can he win the historic election and assume the role of congressman, or will he forever wear the label whispered by his critics? It was this label that became the title: