An early fall Friday night in Winston-Salem a few decades ago meant time to kick back, have a drink or maybe more, and ease into weekend mode.
How that’s done depends upon which Winston-Salem one inhabits: the well-to-do overwhelmingly white set that lives in Buena Vista mansions and relaxes at the Old Town Club, or the often hard-up black crowd that lives in rundown houses in East Winston and gets high at drink houses.
These starkly different worlds are both parts — albeit the extreme parts — of this tobacco and textile manufacturing town on the northwestern edge of North Carolina’s Piedmont, depicted in vivid detail in Vernon Glenn’s debut novel, “Friday Calls.”
These worlds intersect here and there, as when East Winston residents venture into Buena Vista homes to cook, clean, care for the children and do other chores. And then there are the East Winston folks who make extra money running errands, including deliveries from City Beverage, a venerable establishment on the edge of downtown that sells alcohol and a few other things.
And on one fateful Friday night, each of these worlds is rocked by a terrible event that will have spiraling repercussions.
As with so much in Winston-Salem, there are hidden ties woven between these two worlds and the events that rock them. Harry Davis, owner of City Beverage, also runs an illegal sports-betting operation that caters to the Old Town set. And one of his key employees is “Big Rise,” a large woman whose East Winston past includes prostitution and stealing Social Security checks. Big Rise has a little brother, Kenny Peak, who does a little bit of everything, much of it illegal.
That Friday night, a prominent Winston-Salem executive on his way to a house party before the next day’s big Carolina football game is killed when a train hits his car on a crossing on the edge of Greensboro — and a young woman who’s not his wife is killed along with him. At roughly the same time, Kenny shoots the owner of a notorious drink and drug house in East Winston after an argument.
The central tie that Glenn uses to bind these two events is Eddie Terrell, an ambitious and hard-charging young lawyer who grew up in the world of white privilege, and by being eager to take on criminal cases, has learned a lot about the East Winston way of life.
“Friday Calls” is subtitled “A Southern Novel,” and that it is — a fine, lively tale of a 20th-century medium-size, largely segregated city where money talks and a lot goes on under the veneer of propriety and gentility.
Glenn, who grew up in Winston-Salem, went to the University of North Carolina and Wake Forest law school and practiced criminal law in Winston-Salem early in his career, obviously knows his subject matter well, not only in the city’s two disparate worlds but also in the courthouse, one of the places they overlap. He knows how people on both sides of town operate, and when he writes dialogue, you can hear them talking.
Many of the names of people and places he uses are real, and readers who know Winston-Salem will probably enjoy seeing them — even if some of the names may provoke a question or two.
The novel moves back and forth between the story of the train crash, with all its fallout, and that of the fatal shooting, with its own far-reaching effects. Glenn handles the transitions and many characters deftly, so that the reader doesn’t get lost.
This is also a story of justice and how it is or isn’t served as the system grinds along with its deals and compromises.
Glenn has a flair for writing, telling a good tale with well-chosen details that bring the story to life. Like most self-published novels, “Friday Calls” could do with tighter editing, but the story is entertaining, insightful and wholly credible.