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Kirn and Staples

Community

Kirn and Staples

Community
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 11 1998 12:04 PM

Kirn and Staples

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I'm sorry about your brother, Brent. I have a kid brother, too. I can't imagine.

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You've convinced me of one thing during our chat: It might be an interesting and fruitful change for someone of Wideman's talent and power and background to write a comedy of manners next time; something, anything, to excercise the bright side of his brain. As it is, Two Cities struggles toward the light, convincingly and without cheap tricks. (Redemption is on my mind this morning, redemption true and false, having just watched Clinton's manipulative, maudlin spectacle at the White House prayer breakfast. His little anxious glances at the clock during his pastor friend's heavenly petition summed up the state of his soul for me: it doesn't exist unless the cameras are rolling, and every few seconds it blinks out even then.)

One thing that struck me about Wideman's method: the way his characters interpenetrate, their interior monologues becoming third-person descriptions of others that grow so rich we forget who's looking at who, which mind is framing the scene and which one's acting it. The word community gets mightily abused these days, but Wideman makes the concept live and breathe. We're not just who we are but who we're with, and the boundaries between us are oddly permeable. In Wideman the characters possess each other and seem to link up in spiritual daisy chains. It's a surprising effect and it's what I'll remember best about this novel.

A few more words about race in America. You mentioned the missing truth of black traditionalism and moral conservatism. I've seen this; in fact, it's most of what I've seen, having never lived around LA gangsters. I've lived in small towns for most of my life, and despite what I said earlier about their uniform whiteness, there's usually been a solitary black man. In Shafer, Minnesota, he was a hairdresser. Here in Livingston, Montana, he's a wildlife artist. The decision to make oneself a racial anomaly is a mysterious one, but oddly common, and in my experience the men who've done it have a similar makeup. They're gentleman, a little buttoned-up, but with a bohemian, artsy air. They get along famously with white women and often play the role of confidante. At parties, they go to the center of the room, as if to lubricate the gathering. And after a few years, I've noticed, they generally move on, sometimes to a city. There's no general point I can make about this phenomenon; it's just something I've seen quite often in life but seldom in print. Which brings me back to Wideman. He lived once in Laramie, Wyoming, not exactly a bastion of multiculturalism, and since you're the student of his life and times, Brent, I wonder if you know how that worked out for him? I'm curious.

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).