James Baldwin: The Rockpile

James Baldwin’s short story “The Rockpile” was the story I wanted to read for my birthday last month; however, it took longer than I expected to get a copy of Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man. I finally got it and I figure better late than never.

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“The Rockpile” involves the same characters from Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On the Mountain. In that novel, character’s are given their own sections for their story or point of view that tie together in the present time. In this short story, we also get varying points of view but because it’s not a novel, the narration jumps between characters and an author of Baldwin’s caliber makes these jumps work.

The sense of family dysfunction comes through loud and clear as each member old enough has some sort of resentment, some need for forgiveness, some need for redemption:

And she found in his face not fury alone, which would not have surprised her; but hatred so deep as to become insupportable in its lack of personality. His eyes were struck alive, unmoving, blind with malevolence – she felt, like the pull of the earth at her feet, his longing to witness her perdition.

Whether anyone actually finds what they need isn’t known to the reader – at least not in this story.

Anniversary the Third!

Today is the third anniversary of Mirror with Clouds!  It’s been an interesting, informative and all around great three years and I’m looking forward to year #4.  It’s become my anniversary tradition to post some of my favorite quotations from the past year – so here they are!

These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold.  They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world.  Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere.  With a lantern I inspected them more closely.  Such worshipful venerableness of aspect!  Such furry greenness mantling the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells.  I no more saw three tortoises.  They expanded – became transfigured.  I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay.

– From Herman Melville’s “The Encantadas” (a reference to the tortoises found on the Encantadas, also known as the Galapagos Islands)

 

In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.

-From Ernest Hemingway’s “Ten Indians”

 

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

-From Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

 

He did not believe that he himself was formed in the image of God but that Bishop was he had no doubt.  The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love.  Anything he looked at too long could bring it on.  Bishop did not have to be around.  It could be a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk.  If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him – powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise.  It was completely irrational and abnormal.

-From Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away

 

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble.  You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside.  You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.  So you’ve got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen.”

-From James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

 

And then Trout, with his wound dressed, would walk out into the unfamiliar city.  He would meet his Creator, who would explain everything.

-From Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions

 

 

James Baldwin: Sonny’s Blues

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For Week 46 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project, I drew my final wild card.  I selected another story from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

To me, this story is one of the more emotional ones I’ve come across in a while.  I read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain earlier this year and was blown away by the gut-wrenching passion in his style.  That same passion comes through loud and clear in “Sonny’s Blues”.

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The story starts with the narrator reading in the newspaper about an incident involving drugs and his younger brother, Sonny.  It doesn’t take long for the reader to determine that the older brother is the “responsible” one, an algebra teacher, and the younger one is the musician and perhaps not so “responsible”.  Baldwin perfectly captures the complexity of the brothers’ relationship and the older brother’s distress over the newspaper article:

I was scared, scared for Sonny.  He became real to me again.  A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra.  It was a special kind of ice.  It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.  Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream.

The story contains some of the more devastating aspects of the brothers’ family background. Most of it, though, revolves around the older brother’s frustration with the choices of the younger brother.  In some cases, the choices could just be bad choices.  In other cases, they could be the result of Sonny’s artistic temperament or maybe the lack of understanding on the part of his family for that temperament.  What does it cost Sonny to be an artist? His health, his sanity, his soul?

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble.  You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside.  You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.  So you’ve got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen.”

An amazing aspect of this story is Baldwin’s ability to get inside the heads of both of these brothers.  It makes me wonder which character Baldwin related to the most.  The mind of an artist and the struggles that take place within that mind is a fascinating topic to me.  I think this story has now taken the spot of favorite for the year.

Classics Club: Favorite Literary Period

The monthly meme question at The Classics Club for March happens to be the question I submitted so I thought I would take a stab at answering it:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

It’s not difficult for me to pick my favorite literary period.  In coming up with a list of my favorite books, by and large, they fall into the category of “Early Twentieth Century”.  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London always come to mind when determining favorites, as do J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesteron, Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck.  Recently, I’ve discovered Willa Cather and Edith Wharton – while Cather could be included in favorites, the jury is still out with Wharton.   And I can’t forget Margaret Mitchell and her one great novel.

I don’t know who decides which years “Early Twentieth Century” encompasses but I would ask to be allowed to include J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor in this period, as well as James Baldwin, whom I just read for the first time last week.  These authors all published something in the 1940’s and/or 1950’s which I will still include as “Early” even though several of them continued publishing into the “Later Twentieth Century” and in some cases into the “Twenty First Century”.

Why is this time period my favorite?  That’s the more difficult part of the question to answer.  In some respect, it’s simply that these were the authors I read when I first discovered literature during the summer before 10th grade.  They were the first authors I read when I discovered that there was something more to reading than just an exciting plot – that there was something about the words chosen and the way they were put together.  But one could learn this with any literary time period.

I think another reason would be that from my historical perspective, the “Early Twentieth Century” is on the edge of the old and the new.  It’s far enough in the past to be intriguing but yet close enough to the present to see direct connections and influences to the world in which I live.

Just curious, do you have a favorite literary period?

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

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The storm that raged in him tonight could not uproot this hatred, the mightiest tree in all John’s country, all that remained tonight, in this, John’s floodtime.

James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain reminds me of a Flannery O’Connor story.  It’s raw, gritty, gut-wrenching, but underneath is a compassion and a wisdom that explodes along with the rage of the fourteen year-old protagonist, John Grimes.

The structure of the novel grabbed my attention as much as the characters and plot.  The “present time” of the novel takes place over the course of one evening, a Saturday night tarry service at a Pentacostal church in 1930’s New York City, and makes up the first and last chapters.  In between, three chapters flash back to the lives of John’s relatives – his Aunt Florence, his father, Gabriel and his mother, Elizabeth.

The flash backs flesh out the reasons for John’s anger, especially the anger towards his father.  The “sins of the fathers” theme runs throughout the characters’ histories.  As the novel progresses, the reader becomes aware that John’s rage, whether for better or worse, will require an outlet and a resolution.

in the storm – was something-something he must find.  He could not pray.  His mind was like the sea itself: troubled, and too deep for the bravest man’s descent, throwing up now and again, for the naked eye to wonder at, treasure and debris long forgotten on the bottom – bones and jewels, fantastic shells, jelly that had once been flesh, pearls that had once been eyes.  And he was at the mercy of this sea, hanging there with darkness all around him.

The final chapter brings about this resolution in a way that’s unusual but not necessarily unexpected.  In spite of the circumstances and histories that are out of John’s control, he has a choice to make. This rage is his responsibility.  When all is said and done, and the tarry service is over, I couldn’t help but admire Baldwin’s wisdom in determining who would change and who would not.

Everything I’ve read about this novel includes a quotation by Baldwin in which he says that, this, his first novel, was “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.”  Baldwin may have had his own rage to deal with and I have a feeling this book may have been his outlet and his resolution.

I will be thinking about this novel for a long time to come.