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‘The Committee’ a chilling flashback to Florida’s past

Sterling Watson’s historical novel is a taut thriller set against the activities of the infamous Johns Committee at the University of Florida. | Review
Members of the Legislative Investigation Committee, also known as the Johns Committee, in 1963. [Times (1963)]

At the University of Florida in 1953, it’s not a standard duty for an English professor to have to deal with a dead body.

But as Sterling Watson’s compelling new novel The Committee opens, that’s just what Tom Stall finds himself doing. After he hears a strange sound from his office in Anderson Hall, he runs out and discovers the broken body of one of his colleagues on the sidewalk, surrounded by a small crowd of stunned students.

Jack Leaf, it seems, had jumped from a third-story window shortly after receiving a visit from two men. That leaves Stall with many questions, chief among them why. What dire news could make a man kill himself, particularly a man who earned three Purple Hearts in World War II?

That night, deep into martinis with his wife, Maureen, Stall thinks he has an answer. Maureen lets slip that Leaf’s wife had drunkenly revealed that he was not a white man. “Jack Leaf was a Red Indian,” Stall thinks, “and he was passing. Passing was serious business in the South, and Gainesville, Florida, was definitely the South. ... To the bigoted mind, Negroes and Indians were one and the same, and they were bad.”

But when Stall is called in for a talk with the university’s president, James Connor, he starts to get a different sense of why. The charismatic Connor thanks him for handling the situation, then asks if he’s heard of “the Committee.”

Stall hasn’t, so Connor explains. “The Florida Legislative Investigative Committee is Charley Johns’s brainchild, though I doubt he has one. A brain, I mean. I don’t know what Dan McCarty was thinking when he let Charley get this thing up and running. The Committee has police powers, subpoena powers, a team of lawyers and investigators, and they’re all hell-bent to root out Communists, homosexuals, and other undesirables in our schools.”

Connor has been working against the committee, he tells Stall, but now McCarty, the Florida governor, has died suddenly — and Johns, as Senate president, is his successor. That means the committee’s power will be unchecked.

Stall and Connor and Leaf are Watson’s fictional creations, but Charley Johns and his committee are not. From 1956 to 1965, in the depths of the Red Scare, the Johns Committee hounded more than 100 professors and administrators in Florida universities into resignation or dismissal, pursued civil rights advocates and ruined countless lives.

Watson, who retired after 20 years as director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College and co-founded its Writers in Paradise conference, came to the University of Florida as a graduate student in 1969 and heard many stories about the committee’s insidious effects. In this sharply crafted novel, his seventh, he re-creates the era with rich detail and a creeping sense of dread.

Connor wants Stall to continue dealing with the aftermath of Leaf’s death, and he has both a lure for Stall — the promise that he’ll be the next chairman of the English department — and some startling news. Someone has delivered photos to Connor that make clear Leaf was gay, in that time and place an even worse transgression than passing.

In addition to the increasingly aggressive tactics of the committee, Stall confronts pushback from the other direction, from new professor Dr. Sophie Green, the first woman ever hired for the graduate faculty, and one of Leaf’s graduate students, Martin Levy, who share left-wing politics and more.

Stall is an honorable man, and he’s more forward-thinking than many of the people around him. But as the stain of the committee’s inquiries creeps out in every direction, knowing who to trust becomes almost impossible, and his own secrets surface, including some he didn’t know he had.

The Committee is the kind of story that makes you hope it can’t happen here — but reminds you that it already has.

Sterling Watson's new novel is "The Committee." [Akashic Books]

The Committee

By Sterling Watson

Akashic Books, 420 pages, $16.95

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