Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin : Going to Meet the Man

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 39

I stepped in the river at Jordan.

Out of the darkness of the room, out of nowhere, the line came flying up at him, with the melody and beat. He turned wordlessly toward his sleeping wife. I stepped in the river at Jordan. Where had he heard that song?

A second week in a row with a James Baldwin story. This one is the title story from his collection Going to Meet the Man: Stories.

Gruesome. Horrifying. Just two words that could describe this story. Jesse, a white deputy sheriff in the south comes home to his wife ready for a night of romance but unable to perform. A white man’s impotence gives an unusual power to this story. As Jesse recounts in his mind the beating he gave a black man in his jail, his mind goes back to his childhood recalling his parents taking him to a lynching.

This lynching is described in as terrifying a manner as anything I’ve read.

The relationship between Jesse and his father brings together the idea of what can be passed down from generation to generation. While the white man struggles with what he’s done as an adult, his memories as a child brings back his prowess.

Again – terrifying.

This story is not for the faint of heart.

I read it when I selected the Nine of Hearts for Week 39 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

Tama Janowitz: Physics

Now, I am a word person and have never been good with mathematical problems – how many miles a train can travel in five hours if its speed is forty miles per hour, and so forth. I always think, What if a cow gets in the way?

In looking through some of my short story collections, I realized that I only have five stories left in Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. Between now and the end of the the year, I figure I might as well knock these out then I can count it as a book I finished this year.

First up of the not-read stories is “Physics” by Tama Janowitz. It starts with Eleanor, the narrator, getting hit by a car. It’s not a major accident. In fact she leaves the scene to go have pizza. But I would say that getting hit by a car is still significant regardless to what degree.

Eleanor then narrates her story as she goes home to her artist boyfriend Stash, they have a fight over the refrigerator and then go out to a fancy dinner being thrown for a group of artists including Stash.

By this time, based on the narration, its not surprising that Eleanor feels out of place – no matter where she goes. A lot of inner dialogue takes place as Eleanor walks about her life. A lot of angst, insecurity – the things that exist in quite a few of these New York stories. The humor in the minute details of life pops up frequently. She decides she wants to have a baby – all of a sudden.

Ultimately, she compares life to a “Dodg’em car in an amusement park, where the sign says ‘Proceed at Own Risk’. On the one hand it’s very believable that Eleanor would come up with this lame metaphor. On the other hand, it’s a lame metaphor.

Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin : Exodus

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 38

When she was a woman grown, well past thirty as she reckoned it, with one husband buried – but the master had given her another – armies, plundering and burning, had come from the North to set them free. This was in answer to the prayers of the faithful, who had never ceased, both day and night, to cry out for deliverance.

James Baldwin’s “Exodus” brings together two women of two generations. Two generations of “freedom”. Florence, the protagonist, remembers the stories her mother has told her about when, as a slave, she was suddenly free. However, Florence doesn’t remember the actual events, only the stories.

It’s difficult to tell, but it seems Florence’s mother thinks that freedom was enough and maybe her memories of slavery and the freedom that came from it are enough. They are real.

But Florence decides, against her mother’s wishes, in 1900, to move from the South to the North. This is her exodus, her freedom.

The contrast between the generations, between their ideas of freedom, gives the story a slight peculiarity. It’s not only the story of racial injustice and the fight for freedom. It’s the story of one generation needing to be free from the ideas of the last generation.

This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts for Week 38 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: Book One

…I must interrupt myself. I wasn’t going to today, because Padma has started getting irritated whenever my narration becomes self-conscious, whenever, like an incompetent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the strings…

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children makes great use of the metanarrative concept – at least so far in Book One. In fact, the quotation above practically defines metanarrative in a way that’s hidden and unless the reader is looking closely, it just seems a part of the story.

I’m not revealing anything that isn’t at the very start of the novel and that isn’t included in the goodreads description. The birth of the narrator takes place at midnight on August 15, 1947 – the exact moment that India breaks free from the British. While the reader understands this to be significant, by the end of Book One, they still don’t know the details of this significance. Actually, the narrator races toward this event as it occurs right at the end of Book One along with a slight twist.

At least in this first section, one might also consider the narrator unreliable as everything he’s telling is before he was born. The question about how he knows all this is there while the answer isn’t – but it doesn’t seem to matter. There seems to be a lot left for him to tell.

In completing Book One, I find many similarities between Rushdie and Kurt Vonnegut. Rushdie is the wordier of the two with this novel running about 530 pages but both look at life with that wonderful twinkle in their eyes. One can’t help but enjoy the way they acknowledge the absurdity and amusement they find as they observe and write about life.

Check out next week and I’ll (hopefully) post about Book Two. There are three Books in case anyone is wondering.

Posted in Short Stories

Albert Murray : Train Whistle Guitar

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 37

Lil’ Buddy’s color was that sky blue in which hens cackled; it was that smoke blue in which dogs barked and mosquito hawks lit on barbed-wire fences. It was the color above meadows. It was my color too because it was a boy’s color. It was whistling blue and hunting blue, and it went with baseball, and that was old Lil’ Buddy again, and that blue beyond outfields was exactly what we were singing about when we used to sing that old one about it ain’t gonna rain no more no more.

Steel blue was a man’s color.

I’ve been reading a lot of good stuff lately and none better than Albert Murray’s “Train Whistle Guitar”. Hopefully the paragraph I quoted above gives you an idea of the poetry this story contains. The narrator and his friend, Lil’ Buddy, live near a train track and have lots of ideas about the glory involved in riding the rails.

Most of these ideas and ideals come from their boyish admiration for Luzana Cholly who would show up from time to time in their town via train. For lack of a better term, Luzana Cholly might be considered a hobo. He could tell stories that would make two young boys long for the open tracks.

In the eyes of the boys, Luzana Cholly was his own person. The other adults in the town, including the boys’ parents, including the white folks and the black folks, didn’t know what to make of him and he was quite satisfied for it to stay that way.

Murray makes the boys’ conversations between themselves humorous in that they go on for a long time but it’s only the give and take of quick one-liners: one-liners about what they want to be and how they want to be it and what they want to do and who they want to do it to. And these ideas all gather influence from this man that nobody understands.

As with most boyish ideas, they get knocked about in their heads. Reality might set in. They get older. Someone comes along to tell them to get over them. This someone happens to be Luzana Cholly.

Very few, if any, stories capture the wonder of boyhood and how it gets snuffed out better than this one.

This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke. I read it when I selected the Nine of Spades for Week 37 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Out of it he extracted a pinch of tobacco, factory-cut, placed it in Shukhov’s palm, measured it with his eye, and added a few more strands. Just enough for one cigarette, no more.

Shukhov had a piece of newspaper ready. He tore off a scrap, rolled the cigarette, picked up a glowing coal from where it lay at Tiurin’s feet – and drew and drew. A sweet dizziness went all through his body, to his head, to his feet, as if he had downed a glass of vodka.

I think I’ve mentioned at least in a few posts that I’m not a smoker, never have been; however, it’s not uncommon for me to find smoking a powerful image in stories. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a seemingly minor moment in which Ivan Denisovich Shukhov buys a small piece of tobacco from a fellow Soviet prison inmate, becomes something more, something central to the story.

Something small, something insignificant such as a few seconds of smoking puts a meaning in Shukhov’s day and, as a result, his life. A meaning that could very easily slip away in the Russian prison environment he finds himself – an environment of cold, of gray, of work – in which laying bricks needs to be accomplished quickly in subzero weather so the mortar doesn’t freeze and the work has to be redone.

Smoking for a few seconds adds light, warmth, comfort and meaning to this world. It adds enough for Shukhov to continue with his day – and his life. I think it adds something else, too: dignity.

The copy of the book I read is not the one pictured. My copy is translated from the Russian by Ralph Parker. My copy also spelled the author’s first name with a “der” as opposed to “dr”. I’m not sure either way is wrong. One might be more anglicanized.

Posted in Short Stories

Paul Laurence Dunbar : The Lynching of Jube Benson

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 36

…best of all, Jube was a perfect Cerberus, and no one on earth could have been more effective in keeping away or deluding the other young fellows who visited the Dalys.

Paul Laurence Dunbar tells his story “The Lynching of Jube Benson” from the perspective of a white country doctor courting the daughter of his landlord. Dunbar has the doctor tell this story after the fact to a handful of acquaintances. The doctor tells it in a highly educated manner – the narration at times seems almost exaggerated. Perhaps this is meant to add contrast to the animal actions the doctor eventually conducts.

As the doctor concludes his story, he shows some remorse for his actions; however, he’s so detached from his own story that this remorse seems understated. This might be a result of Dunbar feeling that the doctor wouldn’t show enough remorse. Or maybe there isn’t enough remorse for anyone to show in this situation.

This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke. I read it when I selected the Five of Diamonds for Week 36 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

“Nothing But Love”: Chapter XVI of Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

While the music of the young people is great, the stories that Aunt Hager tells Sandy provide an insight into how deeply the old people feel things. It’s a little sad as Aunt Hager has each one of her three daughters, including Sandy’s mother, move away from her. Sandy is left alone with his grandmother and becomes the man of the house helping with the wash that Aunt Hager does in order to pay her mortgage.

Some of the talking that Aunt Hager does in this chapter might not meet today’s standards; however, through the rough times, the grandmother has managed to keep an eye on love and I’m not sure love needs any standards to live up to:

…years of faith and labor, love and struggle filled Aunt Hager’s talk of a summer night, while the lightning bugs glowed and glimmered and the katy-dids chirruped, and the stars sparkled in the far-off heavens.

Here are my other posts about Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter:

Chapter V; Chapter VIII

Posted in Fiction

“Dance”: Chapter VIII of Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

I guess I’m especially enjoying the chapters in Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter that have something to do with music. In chapter VIII, “Dance”, Sandy’s Aunt Harriet and her boyfriend, Mingo, sneak him out to a dance. Getting to see this through the eyes of a ten year-old boy is great enough as he stands around looking innocent while the older teenagers give him a nickel here and there to buy creme sodas.

But what makes it even better is the poetry and lyricism that Hughes uses to describe the music. Each instrument takes on its own personality:

Wah! Wah! Wah!…The cornet laughed with terrible rudeness. Then the drums began to giggle and the banjo whined an insulting leer. The piano said, over and over again: ‘St. Louis! That big old dirty town where the Mississippi’s deep and wide, deep and wide…’ and the hips of the dancers rolled… while the cynical banjo covered unplumbable depths with a plinking surface of staccato gaiety, like the sparkling bubbles that rise on deep water over a man who has just drowned himself…

Yeah! That’s it! And then this:

Whaw-whaw!…Whaw-whaw-whaw! As though the laughter of a cornet could reach the heart of loneliness.

What more needs to be said!

Posted in Short Stories

John Henrik Clarke: The Boy Who Painted Christ Black

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 35

Only Aaron Crawford wasn’t white; quite the contrary. His skin was so solid black that it glowed, reflecting an inner virtue that was strange, and beyond my comprehension.

The main plot points of John Henrik Clarke’s “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” can be found in the title. As the reader though, I still wanted to see what it was all about and some nuanced details here and there makes it well worth reading.

Aaron Crawford, a very intelligent student and gifted artist, paints a picture of Christ as a black man. One of the nuances comes in the form of a teacher’s reaction to the painting. Bewildered? Yes. Condemning? No. The principal of the school also encourages Aaron and allows the painting to be displayed with other artwork at the school’s commencement ceremony. It’s not surprising that both the teacher and the principal are black.

Of course, at the commencement ceremony, the superintendent makes an appearance and sees the painting and decides it’s sacrilegious. The superintendent is white. As the principal stands up to the superintendent, expected negative consequences ensue.

The next nuance occurs as the principal and Aaron walk down the street with a sort of victory stride – as described by the narrator.

The narrator could also be considered a nuance in that we don’t know exactly who they are. My guess is that it’s one of Aaron’s classmates. Even if its easy to overlook, their reaction to the whole thing builds to the important ending.

All in all, it’s a short story that doesn’t have tons of surprises but doesn’t need them to express its powerful intent.

This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best also edited by John Henrik Clarke. I read it when I selected the King of Spades for Week 35 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.