Giving the Soul a Rest

Kirn and Staples

Giving the Soul a Rest

Kirn and Staples

Giving the Soul a Rest
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 8 1998 6:47 PM

Kirn and Staples

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Dear Walter,

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I do not want to seem a bone-headed literalist. But I have always been a reporter first, a literary critic second. I learned to read (and to write, for that matter) mimicking Saul Bellow when he lived and wrote in Hyde Park--my neighborhood in Chicago. He often built on stories I recognized from the news. Reading novels of modern America, I typically turn to newspaper clippings to see what the writer culled.

Having asked your opinion of how Wideman uses his personal tragedy, I feel compelled to provide my opinion as well. But first ...

Wideman's genius for capturing African-American speech patterns really shows here. In one of his books--I forget which--he describes the sight of two black men talking as a kind of jazz dance. This notion is certainly borne out in the blues, jazz, hip-hop, and gospel traditions. Get a good preacher preaching--Lord knows!--and, man, it is sho nuff jazz. The words dance, as do the lives they illuminate. Read closely, as you see that Robert speaks in an entirely different fashion to his lover woman than to the men in the story. Different words. Different pitch and stress, as we say in the linguistics business. How obvious, you say. But Lord knows, it's hard to write like that.

Wideman is so confident that he does away with punctuation, attribution and details of placement that might help the reader keep place in the book. This works 85 percent of the time. Fifteen percent of the time, it causes me to lose my place--which pisses me off, especially when I've paid $25 for the book. But I have this same problem with Faulkner, so I guess that puts John Edgar Wideman in good company.

I agree with you that this is a deeply mythic book. Homer in the streets of Pittsburgh and all. It is also the most cinematic of Wideman's works. The scene that will most attract the filmmakers takes place at the basketball court, where the paunchy middle aged Robert plays his heart out to impress his new lady love--and nearly loses his life in an argument with a young thug on the opposing team. Wideman describes the tangle of men's bodies on the court--the elbowing, butt slapping and hugs--as something like love. Few male writers have the courage to own up to the eroticism of the basketball scrum.

Back to my point about personal tragedy. God forbid. But for the sake of illustration, imagine a child or sibling murdered. Your soul would be hurt and crying all on its own. How many times would you write about it? Would you not go on to something completely different? A cookbook set in Tuscany, perhaps? To give your crying soul a breather.

In the dedication to his murdered nephew Omar, Wideman implicitly blames society and his family, writing "we didn't try hard enough.'' How 'bout it. Does he let the violent characters in this book escape moral responsibility? Do you, White Walter from Minneapolis, feel to blame for this bloodletting?

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).