A Different Drummer ... earned [Kelley] comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin ... When I read A Different Drummer I understood why ... we have a paucity of art that chooses to imagine a different outcome for the civil-rights movement, or alternate universes where African-Americans, from any era, wield not less power but more ... It’s a brilliant setup ... Moreover, it is wonderfully executed ... Kelley was...a strikingly confident writer, with a sense of humor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in stories like 'Revelation': caustic, original, efficacious. He was also a keen observer, and although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life.
A Different Drummer more than lives up to the hype, both in terms of its literary accomplishment and in the power of its political vision ... here we see an America that holds fast to its moral superiority over black people ... Yet for all of Kelley’s sympathetic characterization, his ending returns us to the horrors of race hate ... Today the book offers us an unflinching study of the southern white American psyche at the cusp of the civil rights movement: its belligerence against change, the incomprehension and anger. It is woeful to think that almost 60 years later, Kelley’s story seems just as timely and as urgent, but what a gift to literature that we have rediscovered it.
Broken into 11 chapters, A Different Drummer is frequently told from the perspective of white characters, which in the hands of another writer could mean further marginalization of a voice already so suppressed in literature, but Kelley deliberately gives the book over to white narrators—who range from brutally to casually racist—to make the struggles of his own race all the more impactful ... Kelley delivers his observations with caustic humor and surprising compassion. The comparisons of his debut to the books of James Baldwin and Faulkner are justified ... A Different Drummer is a fascinating account of a man, weary of words and politicking, who makes a seemingly nonsensical decision in the eyes of society.
A Different Drummer is itself a fairy tale, in the best sense of the word: simple, timeless, mythic ... this is a novel about strategic silence: refusal to speak, refusal to engage. Kelley’s formal masterstroke is to tell the novel exclusively from the viewpoints of the white characters—characters whose portrayal is consistently sensitive and empathetic, even when they are committing atrocious acts. His is a true novelist’s gaze, sharpened by the conviction that if you look long and hard enough, you will always understand ... It is not a perfect book: between the swift, spellbinding opening and the shocking finale, there are real longueurs, and because we keep returning to the same day, experiencing it from different perspectives, it can feel as though we’re not moving forwards. But for a debut novel written by a very young man, it is an astounding achievement ... Kelley’s novel might be a fantasy—the dramatic grassroots movement he describes never happened, and likely never could have. But it’s a fantasy that’s still relevant and powerful today.4
Kelley boldly tells his story from the perspective of the white residents, who spin stories of Confederate generals and formidable slaves, speak of their dreams and their youth and try to rationalize this modern exodus [of blacks from the South]. This fierce and brilliant novel is written with sympathy as well as sorrow. It’s a myth packed with real-world resonance, as hope and decency wither in a community that’s as woke as a corpse.