This 1940 book is much better written than the last piece of Southern fiction I read, although the characterizations are more varied but drawn in less detail. It centers around John Singer, a mute man living in a middle-sized Georgia town with his partner, an obese Greek who is also mute. After the Greek goes crazy and his family puts him in an asylum in another part of the state, Singer moves to the Kelly's boarding house, where he is forced to interact with more people in the town. He eventually becomes the confidant of four different individuals: Mick Kelly, a music-loving thirteen year old who is growing up more quickly than she realizes; Jake Blount, an unstable Socialist agitator who is frustrated by the town's disdain for his revolutionary fervor; Biff Brannon, a recent widower; and Dr. Benedict Copeland, a lonely yet lofty doctor whose high standing in the African-American community in town isn't appreciated by whites and who has driven all his children away with his cold passion for the cause.
All of them pour out their hearts to Singer, whose lipreading ability is usually up to understanding them. He is the thread that ties these disparate parties together, but none of them seems to derive any true benefit from their confessional sessions and in the end all but Biff are the same or worse off than they started.
My only quibble with the book was the depiction of Singer's relationship with the Greek. Despite the carefully couched language, it's clearly a homosexual romance. But what is there to love about the corpulent and uncommunicative Greek? He's repulsive, communicates only to request food or drink, and is the same blank sounding board for John as John is to the other four. With such a baffling attraction as the basis, it's difficult to understand why John acts as he does at the book's end. Why doesn't he return to Chicago and the company of more agreeable deaf-mutes? Surely he could do better than this.