National Book Award winners, part 16: 2013’s The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.

15 Dec

(Skipped to the present-day with this one. Am wondering if it wouldn’t be more interesting to write these backwards.)

1.

In 2013—this year—The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award. It is a good but not great novel from a solid writer.

The author James McBride beat Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethowers (a very fine novel); Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (haven’t read it and probably won’t, not for many years); Jumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (ditto); and George Saunders’s goddamn perfect short story collection, The Tenth of December. (He’s one of the great writers of our time, and “Semplica Girl Diaries” alone should have netted him the award.)

The story follows a young freed slave, nicknamed Onion, who falls in with John Brown and spends the rest of the novel working towards, and trying to escape from, Brown’s hideous destiny. Due to some confusion when Brown first meets him, Onion must act and dress like a little girl. The tone veers from light to grim, often within a few pages. Onion is an irascible little troublemaker, yet strangely reliable. Brown begins to count Onion as his good luck charm.

I have two major issues with the novel (as the top fiction award winner).

The first is simple, obvious and well, in the world of fiction, business as usual. McBride has borrowed his basic setup from a number of other, similar novels. The most obvious predecessor is Thomas Berger’s fabulous Little Big Man. (The covers are almost identical.) Berger uses his protagonist—who bounces back and forth between the white and American Indian civilizations—as a way of interrogating our assumptions about history, culture and sin. Berger doesn’t white wash the American Indian savagery, but rather reveals how petty and small it is compared to the cosmic, colonizing designs of the white race. Along the way Berger gets to satirize all manner of American heroes and delivers an American epic at once heartbreaking and hilarious. In juxtaposition, McBride comes off fine, but the novel isn’t groundbreaking or daring.

A very fine historical novel, but the best of the year?

A very fine historical novel, but the best of the year?

McBride also cribs from George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, and who can blame him? Fraser stole a bully from a Victorian-era school novel Tom Brown’s School Days and let him run amok through all the defeats, scandals, reversals and mistakes of the 19th century British Empire. He uses Flashman—a bully, coward, cheat, liar, and womanizer—to burrow into the crevices of England’s colonialist psyche. They’re brilliant parodies of the adventure stories of Kipling and his ilk, and at the same time pitch-perfect yarns. They’re a blast[1].

McBride has a similar scheme, similar goals. He uses the format to accomplish two things. First, he shows the psychological damage slavery has inflicted on an entire race of people, and how insidious and, and harder to rectify this is than the horrid, physical abuses. Here the narrator explains his strategy when walking with John Brown in the north east:

There ain’t nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person, of which I reckon they figured there was only one in the world, Mr. Douglass. So I played dumb and tragic . . .

And, much later, on the condition of being born a slave in the U.S.:

I was but a coward, living a lie. When you thunk on it, it weren’t a bad lie. Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure.

I don’t question McBride’s point of view, or the conclusions his narrator draws, or the veracity of a former slave in pre-Civil War days coming to this very notion. But isn’t this exactly the starting point of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? And one of the major starting plot points of Richard Wright’s Native Son? And, going way back, doesn’t James Weldon Johnson come to this exact conclusion in his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man? (I’ll come back to this point in a moment.)

Two, he wants to mock and satirize canonized historical figures. John Brown is target number one, and McBride mines Brown’s piety, inexhaustible appetite for prayer and bloodletting, and his single-mindedness to destroy slavery that borders on Aspergers. The prayer stuff in particular is often funny. But McBride, understandably, has great admiration for Brown and it comes through. His satire towards Brown is simple and mild. More significantly, John Brown already holds a strange place in our country’s past; even many of his admirers see him as an ahistorical scourge and unhinged avenger with a deathwish. Admiring him, while pointing out his flaws, is what everybody does. So what does McBride’s take on John Brown really bring to the table?

McBride’s much more savage in his treatment of Frederick Douglass. After trying to seduce the young narrator, and not realizing Onion is a young boy in a little girl’s clothes, there’s this scene, with Onion drinking the aging Douglass under the table:

The more bleary-eyed he got, the more he talked like a right regular down-home, pig-knuckle-eatin’ Negro. “I had a mule once,” he bawled, “and she wouldn’t pull the hat off your head. But I loved that damn mule. She was a stinkin’ good mule! When she died, I rolled her in the creek. I would’a buried her, but she was too heavy. A fat thousand-pounder. By God, that mule could single-trot, double-trot . . . .” I rather fancied him then, not in the nature-wanting sort of way, but knowing that he was a good soul, too muddled to be of much use. But after a while I seen my out, for he was off the edge, wasted and looped beyond redemption, and couldn’t hurt me now. I got up. . . . I made for the door. He took one final dive for me as I made for it, but fell on his face.

He looked up at me, grinning sheepishly as I opened the door, then said, “It’s hot in here. Open da winder.”

3.

McBride is black, and only an African American author could write something like this[2].

Ignore an author’s race and, I’m paraphrasing half a dozen black artists here, you steal his/her identity. Focus too much on an author’s race, and you marginalize, minimalize, set apart, essentialize and even dismiss[3]. Betray history, or pigeonhole an individual. It’s a conundrum for critics.

The whole line of thought exposes a number of difficult—and damning, depending on where you’re sitting—questions. Do black authors have a responsibility to write about the black experience? Do white authors lack the authenticity to write about the black experience? Or even more universal questions: Does fiction need to serve some higher purpose? Is there a universal good to moral fiction?

Or put yet another way: does black fiction have to be thought of as its own category? Do novels by African American authors need to be judged/critiqued by different standards? Does art need context to be understood? Do we need to know the authors to appreciate the work?

Troubling questions indeed, and answerless. “Ponderous,” my dad would say, one of his biggest putdowns for a writer (He always says this when describing Russian fiction.) “Ponderous stuff.”

I’m grappling with how to handle these sensitive issues. Just five of the past 79 winners have been black: Ralph Ellison, Charles Johnson, Alice Walker, Jesmyn Ward and now James McBride. That’s no Ernest Gaines (who’s spectacular), Edward P. Jones (one of my wife’s favorites), Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed (hilarious), Percivel Everett (who rules!), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin (who in all fairness was nominated for Go Tell It On the Mountain), Walter Moseley, ZZ Packer, Gil Scott-Heron (why not, his work is amazing), Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle (I love him), a Chester Himes Omnibus of some sort (packaged together his Harlem crime novels are some type of mid-century noir masterpiece) and Albert Murray among others have all been passed over by the top fiction prize. This is wrong.

I’m a self-directed amateur scholar on the Civil Rights Movement (I co-wrote a book on it!), I love soul music more than just about anything, and I feel a great affinity for African American causes of economic justice and equality. Still, I’m a white dude from the Deep South who lives in the most segregated city in the U.S. And I’ve wandered into a minefield of race, money, metaphor, history and fiction.

I must tread lightly.

But I’m trying to grapple with this novel, and through this series on my blog the landscape of American fiction for the last sixty-five years. So, let’s push on.

Some of the novel has a didactic feel. Often McBride seems to be speaking to white readers, trying to explain the psychological damage—carried down to the present day—that slavery has wrought. I don’t know if he is giving us anything new or insightful that other writers haven’t combed over in other works. Why does Onion have to explain the shortcomings of the other black characters? What does this running commentary in the novel really accomplish?

I kept thinking of author Charles Johnson—I’ll review his Middle Passage in the next month or so—another black writer of superior skill who spoke to this very trend in black popular culture (but he might as well be speaking to black fiction):

“During the age of slavery, then the era of Jim Crow segregation, when whites separated themselves from blacks, they needed a black individual to tell them what black people thought, desired, needed. . . . Often that person was the black community’s minister; later writers served that purpose, from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin. I personally think in the post-Civil Rights period a black person is wasting his (or her) time, the preciously few years of their lives, by devoting their enegery—as a “spokesman”—to explaining so-called “black” things to white people. Whites can—and should—do their own homework. Read from the vast library of books on black American history and culture. Take a course, for God’s sage, on some aspect of black history. Then black individuals can be free to pursue the whole, vast universe that awaits their discovery . . .”

Any writer can write whatever the hell he/she wants. I just kept wondering if this novel wouldn’t have been stronger, leaner, and better if McBride didn’t feel the pressure to explain the effects of slavery on the black characters.

Finally, McBride uses Onion’s cross-dressing as an extended metaphor for the mindset of the enslaved African American. I’m not sure it works. Onion isn’t confused. His sexuality isn’t hampered. He lies out of necessity. He knows who he is. Yet time and again other characters discover his lie and comment on how slavery has made fools of everyone. It’s tedious, obvious, and somehow too tidy.

3.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. McBride is a good storyteller, and Bird is a wild romp of a book. The sentences are crisp. The pacing is quick and light. He’s pulling from a great tradition, the picaresque novel, where a character wanders through a landscape peopled by weirdoes. Think Candide with street smarts. Only, to be fair, not quite as good as that sounds. Some of the episodes drag. There’s too much repetition. Some of the characters you like disappear too quickly, and some of the characters you don’t like stick around too long.

He gets great mileage from the cross-dressing jokes. He has a deft handle on John Brown’s oddball energy. (He isn’t alone. Bruce Olds, in his magnificent Raising Holy Hell, captures the same essence, only with short, surreal chapters and a deadly serious approach. And Russell Banks, in Cloudsplitter, covers some of the same ground[4].)

He has some very fine comic scenes, using the cagy distrust of the slaves to great effect. Here’s a scene I just loved:

At the front gate, just outside it, a slim colored woman was out gardening and raking leaves. I approached her.

“Morning,” I said.

She stopped her raking and stared at me a long time. Finally she blurted out, “Morning.”

It occurred to me then that she knowed I was a boy. Some colored women just had my number. . . . I was spying for the Old Man and I was looking out for my own self, too.

“I don’t know where I am,” I said.

“You are where you is,” she said.

“I’m just looking to get the lay of the land. 

“It lay before you,” she said.

We wasn’t getting nowhere, so I said, “I’m wondering if you knowed anybody who wants to know their letters.”

The novel is full of these little comic asides, and every one of them is dynamite.

Still, the book is shaggy at times, uneven, and McBride’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t alter the immense debt he owes Berger. It feels like the judges were exhausted with the physical and linguistic heft of the other nominees and wanted to enjoy themselves instead. (This has happened before.)

I’m not putting McBride down, not really. But I think in juxtaposition[5] with other novels like this one, he has written a good novel with plenty of flaws. The novel opens with a note from an editor who discovered the manuscript we’re reading. But the novel doesn’t return to the editor, or to Onion’s life after John Brown is killed. The result is a weird imbalance. I suppose McBride is saying that after Brown died, Onion just sort of floating along, losing some essential part of himself to history. But that doesn’t feel right.

The last act is superb, however, brutal and taut and devastating. The first two-thirds of the book recede, and the final shoot-out at the armory is stark and pitch-perfect. He lets loose with a barrage of damn good writing.

I’ll end with this. McBride is a talent, and I’m glad I read the book. He’s clearly decent, likable, intelligent. But his decency gently warms the pages when the novel really needs more fire and heat. His novel isn’t as wild as it thinks, his narrator is much more conventional than I expected, and he tells the reader what the reader wants to hear. It’s the old black and white thing again, the racial utopia that so many pop cultural artifacts build on, the friendship that bridges the historical divide and helps ease a million sins.


[1] For example, the charge of the light brigade was partially begun by Flashman and a severe bout of flatulence.

[2] I’m not saying this is a bad thing; in fact, I think this is just the ways things should be. For instance, I think Spike Lee made a good point about Tarantino and Django Unchained. He just should have watched the motherfucker first.

[3] Librarians are faced with the ramifications of these questions all the time. Should black (usually placed in an “urban fiction” section which offends me), gay, American Indian, Asian and so on fiction be set apart in their own little sections (and therefore departmentalized and set apart as an “other?”) Or should fiction be delineated even further, into genres? Or should it all be one massive category that scares away new readers and seems incomprehensible to patrons? (A writer like Chester Himes pokes enormous holes in each of these approaches. Or, put another way, no one in their right mind would separate Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow into “Jewish fiction.” He/She’d be run out of town on a mule. Yet there’s often a gay/bi/transgender section, and the aforementioned urban fiction section was for a while there very common.

[4] Full disclosure: I haven’t read any Russell Banks. One of the many holes in my reading.

[5] I’m reading The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman right now and it’s amazing, big-hearted, empathetic, funny, ribald, and devastating.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: