Kirn and Staples

Kirn and Staples

New books dissected over email.
Sept. 8 1998 2:10 PM

Kirn and Staples

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Dear Walter,

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Good morning. My favorite allegory about writing comes from the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, who tells of a man who draws a map of the world, stands back to take a look and finds that he has drawn his own face. Most writers cannibalize their lives for their work. But Wideman's use of his family life in his books is particularly obvious--given that most of the details have been played out in newspaper and magazines--and repeated in the books themselves. The story of his younger brother Robby, who is serving life in prison for murder, became the 1984 book Brothers and Keepers. In a macabre turn of events in 1986, Wideman's 16-year-old son Jake plunged a hunting knife into the chest of a bunk-mate during a camping trip and was banished to jail as well. Jake's misfortune was laid out both in the nonfiction book Fatheralong and in the novel Philadelphia Fire.

This newest novel, Two Cities, is dedicated to Wideman's nephew Omar, who was murdered six years ago at the age of 22--along with his 17-year-old brother Gerald--in the streets of Pittsburgh. The woman at the heart of this book--who is famous in town for losing two children to the streets and a husband to AIDS in jail in a single year--is clearly modeled on Omar's mother Geraldine Massey of Pittsburgh.

Wideman clearly has a genius ear for African American speech. The scene in which gang members raid a funeral home to defile a rival's body is one of the best and most harrowing in literature. But can Wideman legitimately call this anguished, bloody book "A Love Story"? Is he wallowing in tragedy or has he transcended it through writing about it?

Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for the New York Times. Walter Kirn is the author of My Hard Bargain, a collection of stories, and She Needed Me, a novel. He lives in Montana. This week Staples and Kirn discuss John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities (Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $24).