Atticus Finch, is that you?
The upstanding attorney and godlike father figure at the center of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 classic, is barely recognizable in "Go Set a Watchman," the novel 89-year-old Lee wrote in the mid-1950s, which was discovered last year and is being published Tuesday.
Where the Atticus Finch of "Mockingbird" -- immortalized by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film -- was a man of conscience who defended an innocent black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama, the character in "Watchman," set two decades later during the early civil rights upheavals of the 1950s, believes that "our Negro population is backward" and "unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship."ColumnFiller: Hopelessly wanting more from Harper Lee
Readers will be shocked to learn that Atticus had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan and believes the NAACP "has stirred up . . . trouble" in the state. Much of the fictional town of Maycomb agrees with him.
Stunned contemporary readers might find themselves asking, along with Atticus' adult daughter, Scout, "What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved?"
"Go Set a Watchman," which publisher HarperCollins says is the most preordered book in its history, opens as Scout -- now called by her birth name, Jean Louise -- is traveling back by train to Maycomb from New York City.
In short order, we learn that she has an old hometown boyfriend, Henry, and that her brother, Jem, has died of a heart attack. The first 100 pages are poky; there are some mildly amusing scenes of small-town Southern life but not much drama.
Until, that is, Jean Louise follows Atticus and Henry to a Maycomb County Citizen's Council meeting and hears a terrible racist rant delivered as her father sits by, unprotesting. She is horrified and "vomited up her Sunday dinner."
From there the novel kicks awkwardly into gear, as Jean Louise tries to reconcile the father she worshipped as a child with a defender of the segregationist South.
"Go Set a Watchman" shouldn't be read as a sequel to "Mockingbird." It's the darker, more ill-formed and less compelling book that Harper Lee had to write first before she could produce -- with, by all accounts, an editor's guiding hand -- her masterpiece. It doesn't hold a candle to that book, and we can only be grateful that her editor saw a glimmer of promise in it back in 1957.
GO SET A WATCHMAN, by Harper Lee. Harper, 278 pp., $27.99.