My Favorite African-American Fiction Writers

 

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  This is just a list of my own personal favorites from reading over the years.

Edward-P.-Jones-199x300

Edward P. Jones – First he had the two magnificent short story collections ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘All Aunt Hagar’s Children’.  Then followed his novel about slavery from a black slaveowner’s perspective, ‘The Known World’.  Jones hasn’t missed yet.

a

a

thumbToni Morrison –  Here is our Nobel Literature Prize winner, so many wonderful novels:  ‘Song of Solomon’, ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Sula’, and don’t forget ‘The Bluest Eye’.  She has a new one ‘God Bless the Child’ coming out soon.

a

a

a

RichardWightStamp61_02$_35Richard Wright – ‘Native Son’ is considered his controversial classic, but you have got to read ‘Black Boy’ as well.  He told the intense story of what was really happening in black neighborhoods.

a

a

a

nella

Nella Larsen – She showed up for the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the two fine short novels ‘Passing’ and ‘Quicksand’, quit writing, and went back to being a nurse.

a

a

a

download (5)

Paul Beatty – Here is the new star.  His new novel ‘The Sellout’ is an instant humor classic.  I’m in the midst of this uproarious tale now and will discuss it more in depth in a future article.  Beatty was also the inspiration for me to come up with this list.

a

a

ZORA

Zora Neale Hurston –  Alice Walker rescued Zora Neale Hurston from obscurity, and now Hurston is considered one of the greats, I think deservedly.  ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is a gripping story.

a

AVT_John-Edgar-Wideman_1999

John Edgar Wideman  –  I went through a spell when I read Wideman novels continuously.  Two fine ones are ‘Philadelphia Fire’ and ‘Sent for You Yesterday’.

a

a

a

188px-Colson_Whitehead_BBF_2011_Shankbone

Colson Whitehead –  He wrote a quirky unforgettable novel about elevator inspectors called ‘The Intuitionist’, also ‘John Henry Days’.  He is one to watch going forward.

a

a

a

download (4)

Alice Walker –  She is most famous for ‘The Color Purple’ but I liked ‘Meridian’ even better.  She has been an activist for human rights her entire adult life.

a

a

a

84b95ea295c3bfd7be6bb48b6e83e269GoTellItOnTheMountain

James Baldwin – I’ve only read ‘Go Tell It to the Mountain’ of Baldwin’s works, but that was enough for him to make my favorite list.

a

a

a

So many others. Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, newbie Heidi R. Durrow,  David Bradley who wrote the prize-winning story “You Remember the Pinmill” in 2014 which I loved, Charles Johnson.

I would like to find out about your favorites too.

‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo – The Impossible Housekeeper

‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo   (1987)   262 pages     Translated by Len Rix     Grade: A-

51fYd3QdJwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I wish we had a housekeeper for our house like Emerence in ‘The Door’.  Cleaning houses, sweeping the streets, even shoveling all the snow in the neighborhood when there’s a snowstorm, Emerence does the work of five people.

“The old woman worked like a robot.  She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself.  There was something superhuman, almost alarming in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on.  Emerence obviously reveled in her work.  She loved it.” 

The unnamed young woman who tells this story and who employs Emerence to clean her house is totally different from Emerence.  She is the modern woman, spends all day on her computer, and is a globe-trotting author who wins literary awards.   She and her husband who is also a writer have no time for all the details such as cleaning the house.

This modern woman and Emerence are a study in contrasts, and they get into epic fights.  However these two opposites soon develop a close relationship.  Emerence soon becomes a highly critical mother figure to this young woman.

Emerence is a peasant from rural Hungary, and she lived through World War II.  She’s had a hard life.  She is illiterate and abrasive and stubborn, prone to bitter outbursts. All of her truths have been hard won, and she wastes no time setting this spoiled modern young woman straight.  Emerence says to the young woman,

“You think there always will be someone to cook and clean for you, a plate full of food, paper to scribble on, the master to love you; and everyone will live for eternity, like a fairy tale; and the only problem you might encounter is bad things written about you in the papers, which I’m sure is a terrible disgrace, but then why did you choose such a low trade, where any bandit can pour shit over you?”

There is a dog, Viola, in this story.  The young couple buy the dog, but of course the new dog is immediately enamored with old Emerence to the point where it is almost her dog.

The ultimate hate-love relationship exists between this young modern woman and her old housekeeper.  I say ‘hate-love’ because at first these two opposites are disgusted and furious with each other, and it is only later that they recognize that there is a deep closeness between them.  It is fascinating to watch the war and the devotion between these two played out to the extremes in ‘The Door’.

 

‘White Dog’ by Romain Gary – A Racist Dog

‘White Dog’ by Romain Gary (1970) – 279 pages    Grade: A-

 

9780226284309_p0_v1_s260x420With this story about a dog, Romain Gary has found a near ideal way to express his views of which there are many. First let me tell you about the dog.

One day the Gary family’s pet dog Sandy is followed home by another stray dog, a German Shepherd. All the Garys are quickly smitten by this new dog which is friendly to the entire family. However soon they realize that the dog has a problem. This dog was originally a police dog from the South in the United States and had been trained to ferociously attack any black person in sight. This racist dog would never suit Romain Gary and his actress wife Jean Seberg since they frequently host meetings of the Black Panthers and other social and racial justice groups at their home. So they take the dog to a kennel which employs a skilled dog trainer named Keys in order to change the dog’s offensive behavior. Keys happens to be black himself.

This all occurs in 1968, and ‘White Dog’ captures all of the wildness and radicalism of that time. Romain Gary brings an intellectual’s insight to the story, but he is no ordinary intellectual. He was one of the few original World War II aviators to survive the war and is a war hero. In France in the 1960s, Gary was considered an establishment rightist due to his high position as a diplomat in the DeGaulle government and his vehement anti-Communism. However in the United States he was considered a radical leftist for his belief in black-and-white racial justice. He had the good sense to understand that there isn’t much difference between Communist authorities imprisoning millions of their own Russian citizens and those United States ‘law and order’ politicians who work to imprison millions of their own black citizens.

Gary’s wife Jean Seberg was one of the top actresses in Hollywood and heavily involved in radical politics. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under J. Edgar Hoover did everything possible to discredit her, even getting major gossip columnists to spread the false rumor that she was impregnated by a black man. When she miscarried, she had the premature baby buried in an open casket in her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa so everyone could see that it was white.

Both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated during the spring of 1968. In particular the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King was the murder of hope in the United States. ‘White Dog’ is an insider’s view of the radical movement in the United States at that time. Much of the book is taken up with his own skepticism and analysis about many of the radical ideas that were floating around at that time. Many of his views are sensible and quite brilliant. Here are just a few of Romain Gary’s insights in ‘White Dog’.

“If evil things were only done by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.”

“There are worse traps than trusting people.”

“I have a profound dislike for majorities. They always become crushing. A majority may sound like a democratic force, but there is usually more force than democracy.”

“Half the things that happen aren’t possible.”

Romain Gary and Jean Seberg

Romain Gary and Jean Seberg

Some of the views expressed in ‘White Dog’ were au courant at that time and now hopelessly out-of-date. Even when Romain Gary is wrong-headed in his opinions and views, he is nothing less than fascinating.

‘White Dog’ is fundamentally different from most writing today. It is filled with challenging and in some cases infuriating ideas. Today much is written to attract the most readers. It is well-written, tasteful, and guaranteed to please most everyone, but it doesn’t really hit you where it hurts. Not many books today are annoying and invigorating at the same time like ‘White Dog’.

For more, read Emma’s review of ‘White Dog’ at Books Around the Corner. She is the one who recommended I read this fine book.

Minnesota Nice – ‘There’s Something I Want You to Do’ by Charles Baxter

‘There’s Something I Want You to Do’ by Charles Baxter    (2015) – 240 pages    Grade: B

 

                 -

“Minnesota nice” must really exist since it has its own entry in Wikipedia. The first lines in the entry state:

“Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation  It can also refer to traffic behavior, such as slowing down to allow another driver to enter a lane in front of the other person. Critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change.“

I have lived in Minnesota for 25 years, and I can honestly say “Minnesota nice” is real. But not to worry, I was born and raised not in Minnesota but in Wisconsin, so none of the above applies to me.  However Charles Baxter was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the stories in his new collection “There’s Something I Want You to Do” all take place in Minneapolis.

All of the stories are named either for a virtue (Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, and Forbearance) or a vice (Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Vanity).   In ‘Loyalty’ a man who has remarried takes in his mentally ill ex-wife, because:

 “She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins. What happened to her could’ve happened to me or to anybody.”

 This is only one example of ‘Minnesota nice’ behavior in these stories.  In ‘Charity’ a man flies from Las Vegas back to Minneapolis to rescue his gay lover who is now addicted to a pain-killing drug and living outside down by the Mississippi River.

quotation-charles-baxter-day-meetville-quotes-91983I have read a fair amount of the fiction of Charles Baxter, and I do admire his work, especially ‘The Feast of Love’ which is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  Several of the stories in this collection depict the strangeness of everyday life, chance encounters, a doctor of pediatrics who communes with the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock at the Stone Arch Bridge, a woman who looks forward to dying.

If I have a complaint, it is that the people in these stories are just too nice.  Without villains or at least bad people, there is little real conflict, no intensity.  There is one mugging, but the mugging seems rather gentle, and the victim suffers no ugly repercussions.  Even in severe illness and death, these characters seem rather mild-mannered.

Maybe next time Baxter should bring in some wild wicked evil people from other states beside Minnesota (perhaps from Wisconsin) to stir things up a little.

 

My New Fiction Grading System

 

bI’ve decided to implement a grading system for the fiction I review at Tony’s Book World.  I’ve always admired the letter grading system that M. A. Orthofer uses at the Complete Review, so I am implementing a similar system here without the same aura of authority.  This is a system for people who think there is a huge difference between an A- and a B+.

gg57837632 I have gone back and assigned grades to all the fiction I have read since my last yearly Top 10 list which was published on about December 10 and is when my old literary year ends and the new one begins.  The grade appears near the top of the review.   I did feel rather silly grading William Shakespeare.  Giving ‘Portrait of a Lady’ only an A- made me feel as pompous as Henry James must have actually been.

ISTEP-1There will be few D or F ratings because I try to avoid reading crap, and I quit books I don’t like.  Just this morning I quit ‘Happy Are the Happy’ by Yasmina Reza because it did not suit me.

On the positive side, ‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith and ‘Honeydew’ by Edith Perlman received A ratings and ‘There Must Be Some Mistake’ by Frederick Barthelme received an A-, the only recently published books to rate that high.  There are no A+ ratings yet, and I will try to avoid them for as long as possible.

‘The Whites’ by Harry Brandt aka Richard Price – A Cop in New York City

The Whites’ by Harry Brandt aka Richard Price   (2015) – 333 pages     Grade: B+

9780805093995

Richard Price is the great urban novelist of the United States. Police procedural novels are usually not my favorite reads, but I make an exception for Richard Price.   I have followed his work from the very beginning back in 1974 with his first book of connected stories, ‘The Wanderers’. I have read all of his fiction since then.  He has branched out into screenwriting (‘The Color of Money’, ‘Sea of Love’, ‘Clockers’) and television (‘The Wire’). He has the accuracy and honesty to portray all of his characters as individuals rather than as members of any group.

First let me explain the title, ‘The Whites’.  Price’s conceit is that every member of the police force has one case that sticks in his or her craw, a case where a vicious perpetrator, who could be any race or nationality, was never ever arrested or held responsible for their hellacious crime.

“They had all met their personal Whites, who had committed criminal obscenities on their watch and then walked away untouched by justice.”  

The white whale.  Leave it to Richard Price, in a society where the word ‘black’ is given so many negative connotations, to give the word ‘white’ a negative connotation.  Richard Price is a true believer in justice, in fair play.

In Richard Price’s fiction, the cops and the criminals live quite similar lives.  Both have husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends and family; both do what they can to get a little extra money; both have lots of troubles.  It’s just that the cops are on one side of the law and the criminals the other.  The cops generally came from the same area they now work in and know some of the criminals from childhood.

Just to give you a sense of the spirit and city ambiance of ‘The Whites’ so you can decide whether or not you want to read it,  I will quote the first paragraph on New York street life.

“As Billy Graves drove down Second Avenue to work, the crowds worried him: a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people pulling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through the clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances.  He hated the no smoking laws.  They created nothing but problems – late-night noise for the neighbors, elbow room enough for the bar-cramped beefers to finally start swinging, and a plague of off-duty limos and radio cabs all tapping their horns to hustle fares.”

Police are sworn to uphold the law and impart justice for all of the people in their districts.  We hear about some police forces that are led by white racists, and there probably are some.  But racists make lousy cops, because they don’t believe in justice and they don’t believe in fair play.

Although Richard Price uses the pseudonym Harry Brandt here, he makes no attempt to hide the name Richard Price which is also printed in big letters on the cover.  I’m not sure he will accomplish much of anything with the pseudonym.

‘The Whites’, just published, is already scheduled to be made into a movie.

 

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler – Furniture and Domestic Family Bliss

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler    (2015) – 358 pages   Grade: B

tyler spool blue thread_0

In ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’, Anne Tyler has the good sense to kill off one of her major characters just when we were getting monumentally sick of their perkiness.

I feel I’ve earned the right to crack wise about Anne Tyler, because I’ve read 19 out of 20 of her novels through the years since 1977.  Somehow I missed ‘Noah’s Compass’.  Despite my having a little fun at Anne Tyler’s expense, I find her novels insanely readable and often absurdly moving.

This novel is not Tyler’s best.   It probably will not make my end-of-year Top 10 list since I’ve already read two other books this year that are superior to ‘Blue Thread’.   It is too scattershot with scenes spanning four generations and seventy years.   There does not seem to be a unifying theme to the novel beyond domestic family bliss.

The novel begins with a promising plot line about a prodigal son. The son Denny is the black sheep of the Whitshank family in this novel.  It is obvious that Anne Tyler has not a clue what a real black sheep is.  A real black sheep could do a million and one terrible destructive things, but Tyler has him do none of that.  For Tyler, a black sheep would forget to defrost the hamburger for the family dinner or be angry for no good reason.  That is about the extent of human evil in this Tyler novel.

However whatever tension or drama this black sheep brings to the novel is dissipated as other stories and other generations are pursued instead.  If you want a real prodigal son novel, read ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson in which the son is an actual terrible human being.

Also there’s way too much about carpentry and home furnishings in ‘A Spool of Blue Thread.  I realize that furniture is her chosen metaphor for domestic family bliss and that she uses the production and care of furniture to show her characters’ admirable qualities, but still too much furniture over-decorates a room or a novel.

spool_of_thread_3188819aIn Anne Tyler, even the intentions of a twenty-six year old man who does it with a thirteen year-old girl are honorable. This man is not the black sheep but is the patriarch of the family.  This patriarch does build fine woodwork.

But ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ is still Anne Tyler.  Despite my criticisms above, you will be moved.  If you have never read Anne Tyler before, you will find this novel just about the greatest thing.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 326 other followers

%d bloggers like this: