Van has finished reading… A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley

15 Oct

a different drummer


What a book William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is, marching to its own beat not only in name but in nature too! Set in a fictional southern state, described by means of a snippet from ‘The Thumb-Nail Almanac’ from 1961 – a device that effectively stands it in the stead of any southern state built on slavery – the important line is the one presented as a footnote of recent history, as something of a curiosity: Today, it is unique in being the only state in the Union that cannot count even one member of the negro race among its citizens.

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is the story of how that came to be.


The thing I find most incredible about A Different Drummer is that it’s 2018 and it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Okay, it’s not like I’ve been an enormous book nerd since birth who knows everything that’s ever been written but equally, when you begin to read in a particular vein it’s inevitable that connections will be made, and recommendations offered. It’s a travesty that A Different Drummer, first published a mere 10 years after Ralph Ellison’s exquisite Invisible Man, doesn’t share that book’s reach. Especially since I could well imagine Invisible Man’s detractors holding up William Melvin Kelley’s novel as an alternative.


I love the structure of A Different Drummer, beginning with that scene-setting excerpt from the almanac and shifting to the spinning of a tale on a store front porch as the area’s white farmers watch the trickle of the town’s black inhabitants leaving. The telling of the tale titillates with its tendency toward the unbelievable, hyperbole that alludes to the savagery and strength of the first slaves, even unto the name one slave family inherits, Caliban (yet there is the presenting later of a little white stone…).

The structure centres then on the Willsons, the richest and most influential land-owners in the area. Their ways may be more progressive and they may be beginning to seek a route out of their situation, but they are still essentially a white family entrenched by their own privilege and tradition. It’s through successive members of this family that the story unfolds – the story of a black man, Tucker Caliban, seen through white eyes – until the ominously titled final chapter.

And what a finale it is, too, the last word given to the optimism (or oblivion) of a white boy in a white man’s world; no-one else in the book could share that viewpoint at that moment. Genius.


How apt it is that all that noble-savage imagery is distilled into the strength and conviction of the slightest character in the novel. Stronger than all the well-meaning and progressiveness, all the lobbying you can imagine, it’s the making up of a mind that starts a movement. There’s a big difference between wanting change and being the change. That takes a Different Drummer!


Some books you think you might come back to. William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is one I know I will come back to. It’ll be on my shelf alongside Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Caryl Phillip’s Cambridge. You should make a space for it on yours.


A Different Drummer will be published by riverrun on the 1st November 2018 ISBN:9781787478039

My especial thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this wonderful book.


One Response to “Van has finished reading… A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley”


  1. Van has finished reading… The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead | vanisreading - 25/10/2018

    […] and finding the true face of America. And its punchline chimes with William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. For all the necessary action, whether hidden or in plain sight, illegal or not, taken to bring a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: