Review by PETE HAMILL
Published: February 26, 2006
HISTORICAL novels are primarily works of the imagination, not of history or its imperfect relative, journalism. History can inspire the workings of the imagination and journalism provide tools to help the novelist see the imagined past through its surviving remnants. But imagination is the core of the book.
In this long, layered novel — the final volume of a New York trilogy called “City of Fire” — Kevin Baker plunges audaciously into the world of Harlem in the early 1940’s to imagine the lives of two African-American men. He has absorbed the histories, biographies and previous fictions. He has walked the actual streets where his drama plays out and has imagined the rest. One of his main characters was known in the “real” world of 1943 as Malcolm Little, a rootless 18-year-old who would later become famous as Malcolm X. The other is the invention of Baker: a young, bourgeois, light-skinned Harlem clergyman named Jonah Dove. Malcolm is poor. Jonah is comfortably middle-class. In different ways, each is tormented by the world.
Over the course of the novel, the two men brush against each other, always strangers separated by the peculiar institution of class. Their decisive encounter takes place at the beginning of the novel, when Jonah and his darker-skinned wife are traveling south by rail to New York from an upper-class black enclave on Martha’s Vineyard. Malcolm is selling sandwiches on the train, cynically “Tomming it up” for tips. Some drunken white soldiers start taunting Jonah, who maintains an embarrassed, tense, outwardly stoic calm. The soldiers go too far, and young Malcolm slams them around with the heavy sandwich box. In essence, he rescues the black couple, and when the train eases into a station he leaves it and plunges into the shallow waters of a place called Buzzards Bay. That act haunts Jonah, and near the end of the novel he meets Malcolm in the middle of the Harlem riot of 1943 and asks him why he dived into the water in view of all the passengers.
” ‘I just wanted their attention!’ he called over. ‘Ain’t you ever felt like that? I just wanted to make sure they all saw me.’ ”
That is, another invisible black man makes himself briefly visible.
After that first encounter on the train, Malcolm and the couple go separately to Harlem, Malcolm to a seedy boardinghouse, the Doves to a lovely town house in what poorer Harlemites called Strivers Row. These two tree-lined blocks of houses on 138th and 139th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues were designed by Stanford White and other architects for white owners who never came, or who fled when blacks started moving into Harlem at the end of World War I.
Malcolm, shaped by an impoverished, erratic childhood in Lansing, Mich., is exuberant about his arrival, at last, in the capital of black America. Harlem is part of Jonah’s birthright, but he is deeply troubled by a crisis of faith, religious and social. That crisis is italicized by the humiliations of the train ride, which underline the cruel absurdities of race and class. There is much guilt in Jonah’s character, too. He has risen to leadership of the Church of the New Jerusalem through the dynastic power of his father, who founded it. He and his childless wife have survived the terrors of the Depression on the contributions of the black working poor, whose labors have financed the house on Strivers Row. Jonah’s father lives on in a room at the church, aged and silent. He no longer believes in God, and his son has more questions than answers about his own faith. At the same time, Jonah imagines leaving his wife and vanishing into the larger white world, where he can “pass.”
“He knew then, for the first time, that he truly would go,” Baker’s brooding Jonah reflects at one point. “Pass once and for all into that monstrous white world — not for fame or money or some sense of freedom like his sister sought, but just so he wouldn’t have to watch from close up anymore.”
Jonah’s sister, Sophia, lives as a white woman in Greenwich Village and has taken the name Miranda. She is a singer, a white-bread version of Billie Holiday, but in Harlem she poses as a white woman who sleeps around with black men, one of whom is Malcolm. Apparently, none of Jonah’s parishioners ever see her leaving the clubs or showing up at rent parties. And we never learn why she didn’t just stay home.
The education of Malcolm Little is a more coherent tale, following the narrative line of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (written with Alex Haley) and the biographies cited in the acknowledgments by Baker. What is not in the existing texts, Baker invents, his right as a novelist. Malcolm finds work as a waiter in Small’s Paradise (densely and vividly evoked), loses that job out of naïveté (giving a lonesome young soldier the address of a prostitute, then realizing the soldier was probably a cop), and soon moves on to running numbers, peddling and using drugs, and working for pimps. Along the way, young Malcolm becomes Detroit Red, one of a variety of assumed street identities, and adopts the defiant uniform of the zoot suit.
His formal education ended after the eighth grade, and the basic texts of his informal self-education are movies, comic books, dream books (those marvelous guides to playing the numbers), stray tracts on black nationalism. Inevitably, he’s attracted to the comic-book theology of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, as conceived by a mysterious character named Wallace Fard (who might have been white) and a messianic hustler named Elijah Muhammad (Malcolm’s actual conversion to this American version of Islam didn’t take place until 1949, while Baker’s novel ends in 1943). Baker’s Malcolm appears to be totally devoid of a sense of irony, or he would laugh out loud at their creed, with its mad scientists and immense spaceships. Instead, near the end of the novel, Baker has Malcolm reading a book about Elijah Muhammad, and imagining fully developed scenes as if they were fact. One imagined meeting of Fard and Elijah at which a Japanese secret agent appears is pure comic-book melodrama, the preposterous machinations of a nefarious secret society. But Baker’s Malcolm doesn’t see it that way. This repeated device — Baker’s fictional Malcolm imagining Fard and Muhammad in detailed scenes from an imaginary book — hurts the novel. Most of all, it drastically undermines the reader’s suspension of disbelief, in a novel whose driving current is the need for belief.
In contrast, the Harlem shared by Malcolm Little and Jonah Dove is portrayed with great care, built upon many exact and concrete details, and is one of the strengths of the novel. Baker makes us see the soldiers and sailors (black and white) roaming the evening streets in search of women, whiskey and trouble, and usually finding them. He captures the seething anger of ordinary citizens as reports come in by mail or through the black press about the racist abuse of segregated black soldiers in the American South (and black defense workers elsewhere). Much street talk has a singular point: why should any black American serve a country that won’t accept his full citizenship?
As Malcolm wanders through the nights, and Jonah questions himself, his marriage and the cruelties of the Old Testament God, tension grows in the doorways and on the stoops and rooftops of Harlem. In a way, these passages are fictional extensions of a 1955 account by James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son”: “I had never before known it to be so violently still. . . . I had never before been so aware of policemen, on foot, on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two. Nor had I ever been so aware of small knots of people.”
Everything on the street builds toward an explosion. The Detroit riot in late June happens offstage in Baker’s novel, but feeds the Harlem tension (curiously, Baker doesn’t mention the racist “zoot suit riots” in Los Angeles a few weeks before the Detroit events). Neither Jonah Dove nor Malcolm Little is in danger of being sent off to the war (Malcolm fakes psychological problems and is classified 4-F). For them, the most dangerous places of all are in America. Harlem erupts into riot on Sunday evening, Aug. 1.
Baker wisely chooses to describe the riot in an understated way, as if deferring to Ralph Ellison, who covered it for The New York Post and made it a culminating, phantasmagoric movement in his classic 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.” But one result of this decision is that neither of the principals is much affected by the bloody events in the real world. Jonah has spent a long solitary day in a Midtown hotel room, after leaving his wife without a word of explanation, prepared to set off at last into his new life of passing. He is then consumed by longing and guilt and hurries home to Strivers Row, just in time for the riot. He works hard at caring for his flock, and for the casualties, but he is not much changed.
Malcolm, as he does so often in the novel, simply runs. Away from danger, away from risk, away from the phantoms of his deepening paranoia. It’s as if the drugs had eaten his will. Those who want to believe that Malcolm Little was always a fearless black man will be enraged by that part of the portrayal. Baker, however, is not interested in hagiography. On one important level, he merely wants to tell a story.
That story has many moments of power and insight, most of them involving the anguish and ambiguity of class, as exemplified by the visions of Jonah Dove. In addition, there is much buried treasure. Baker is wonderful on the numerology of dream books, the painful rituals of “processing” hair. A number of real people make cameo appearances: Fiorello La Guardia (on the night of the riot); Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (another apostate clergyman, but one possessed of a roguish charm); even the hermitlike Collyer brothers, who in the novel die in 1943, when they actually died in baroque squalor in 1947 (as noted by Baker in his afterword). There are a few too many Dickensian coincidences for my taste, but I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen next. That is, I surrendered to the craft of the novelist.
In the end, Baker has written a brave, honorable work, taking us into a vanished world that should be better known. More important, he imagines his human subjects with a sense of pity and compassion and embrace, thus making them visible in ways that are fresh and new.
Pete Hamill, the author of nine novels, including the best sellers “Snow in August” and “Forever,” is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University. His most recent book is “Downtown: My Manhattan.”
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