In the early 1950's, Milan, Georgia is a racially divided town where secrets are plentiful and the meaning of justice is muddled. J. T. Malone, a 40-year-old pharmacist who failed his second year of medical school, is diagnosed with leukemia and told he has only 12-15 months to live. In some ways, Malone's last year of life parallels the declining fortunes of the town's leading citizen, Judge Fox Clane, an overweight and elderly former Congressman who suffers from diabetes and a previous stroke. Judge Clane's wife died of breast cancer, his only son committed suicide, and his daughter-in-law died during childbirth. He raises his grandson, John Jester Clane, and aspires to restore the grandeur of the South in conjunction with redeeming his personal hoard of Confederate currency.

Judge Clane hires Sherman Pew, a "colored boy" and orphan, as his personal assistant, but Sherman eventually resigns from the position when he can no longer tolerate the Judge or his prejudice. Sherman moves into a house located in a white neighborhood. A group of townspeople including the Judge plots to get rid of him. A local man bombs the building and Sherman dies. Shortly after his death, the United States Supreme Court announces its decision supporting school integration.

The Judge is infuriated and goes on the radio station to express his opinion, but he has not prepared a speech. Instead, he begins babbling Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The radio station cuts him off. Malone has been listening to the Judge on the radio, but his wife turns it off. Integration no longer matters to Malone. Near the end of his life, Malone finds solace in the renewed love for his wife, Martha. He finally appreciates the order and simplicity of life. The pharmacist dies peacefully in his own bed.


The challenges of living with chronic illness (such as diabetes and the complications of a stroke) and coping with a fatal disease (leukemia) are thoughtfully presented. Malone's slow march toward death is particularly gripping. Along the way, he denies the presence of his disease, decides to change doctors, is admitted to the hospital, worries about getting his affairs in order, and expresses doubts about the afterlife. Readers are reminded, "Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way" (1).

The value of the pharmacist (and local drug store) to a community is pointed out. Malone is not just a peddler of medicines and proprietor of a small business. He listens carefully to the problems of his customers, dispenses advice, and refers them to the doctor when he feels it is appropriate.

The novel offers an interesting (and unsettling) glimpse of small town life during a crucial period of American history - the coming of equal rights. The ugliness (sometimes little, sometimes large) that we carry inside is fully on display here. Inequality is especially repugnant. The lies we tell others pale in comparison to those we tell ourselves. The story repeatedly asks a simple yet weighty question: Exactly who are we, and where are we headed?


First published in 1961



Place Published

Boston & New York



Page Count