Care of the Soul

Kirn and Staples

Care of the Soul

Kirn and Staples

Care of the Soul
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 10 1998 3:31 PM

Kirn and Staples

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Ah, flushed out at last. Now we've reached the nub of it. Those hard working black ladies you speak of populated my early neighborhood, drank coffee at my kitchen table--and taught me how to talk, given that I was the first son born among my mother's friends. In those days, of course (1960, in a fat and sassy steel town), the paychecks were hefty, only men worked and women stayed home--to dote on me. My industrial town near Philadelphia--well east of Wideman's Pittsburgh--was a warm, loving place.

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The streets were subject to unceasing scrutiny by those women. They watched out for errant boys, spanked our butts when it was called for--then called up our moms, who spanked us again. The missing truth in the modern conversation about race is that the African-American middle class is substantially more conservative (in terms of conventional morality) and substantially more exclusionist than the white middle class. (How could it be otherwise for people who lived so close to the hyper-poor and needed to protect their own, hard-won gains?) The modern fiction that thuggishness and swagger equal black identity is light years from true.

Wideman remembers the warm, non-pathological past. Two Cities touches on it, in brief sections about Mr. Mallory and his army pal jitterbugging over Pittsburgh during the forties like there was no tomorrow. Despite its unremitting grimness, this novel seems to show Wideman (his persona clearly rests in the woman in this book) fighting his way back. Robert and Kassima's love affair, born in a barroom and a one-night stand, springs surprisingly into full-fledged, though wounded, love. A rose grown up through a crack in the concrete.

Along the way in this book, however, he revisits the essentials of Philadelphia Fire, which focuses on the bombing of the black extremist MOVE sect by the Philadelphia police. For me, the MOVE bombing was an unfortunate accident brought on by a crazed group of people who courted disaster and got it. For Wideman, the bombing seems to be a metaphor for sinister forces working to extinguish black people from the face of the earth. The burning ash and the stench of corpses from the MOVE fire threaten to smother all that is good--and that made him.

In both Fatheralong and Two Cities he implicates the sinister force in the murder of his nephew and the jailing of his son. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that a younger brother of mine (a drug dealer) was murdered in the early '80s. Eight weeks before it happened, I sought him out, advised him to leave town and predicted to his face that he was about to be killed. I walked through that door and never came back, wrote about it in a book--to sort it out--but will never return to it again, either fictionally or in fact. The rituals of grief and burial--and sometimes writing--bear the dead away.

It is arrogant for one writer to tell another what to do. But more and more, I find myself wishing Wideman would move what is clearly a wonderful mind to another mental landscape. Not for my entertainment, but because it seems like good stewardship of the mind and soul.

To answer you: Oh, yes, I think his dark cloud is real. Faked things are easy to shuck. Real things hold you prisoner.

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).