The Meaning of a Novel

Kirn and Staples

The Meaning of a Novel

Kirn and Staples

The Meaning of a Novel
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 9 1998 12:08 PM

Kirn and Staples

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

That last question gets to the grit of it. Hmm. It makes me a little nervous.

Advertisement

Hmm. I'm not from Minneapolis, by the way; that would make me a hipster, practically. I'm actually from a farm town called Shafer, population 200, not one of them black and quite few non-Scandinavian. My only experience as a "minority" was being a Mormon in a Lutheran state and having to drink--a lot of people don't realize such things went on in the Old Midwest--from designated Mormon school water fountains, which were typically poorly-maintained and often filthy, leading to crippling bouts of dehydration and occasional intestinal infections among my embattled cadre of co-religionists.

Did I blame the non-Mormon administration for these problems? You bet I did, those pigs. There was suffering going on, they might have eased it, but instead they turned away, enjoying their bounty of crystalline, clean water while saying our puking and fainting was our own fault, a symptom of famously lazy Mormon hygiene, a product of the resentment and fear and rage whipped up in us by our cynical leadership who, by preaching revenge and retribution against our mainline Protestant oppressors were, in reality, keeping us trapped and weak, dependent on the grand poobahs in Salt Lake City instead of on ourselves and our own families. You bet I held those chilly Swedes responsible, those cave-dwelling icemen of the savage north who knew full well that the true, historical Jesus was actually a Mormon with seven wives.

But as to your question: do I, Walt, feel responsible for the black tragedies written of by Wideman? The decay, the disease, the violence, the waste?

Yes, I do.

I blame Huckleberry Finn. Aside from the entire Hardy Boys series, it's the only novel I read before 14. Its message sank in deep. The duty of happy-go-lucky white country boys was to buddy up with a slave in need of rescuing and share their raft with him as he floated to freedom. It was the right thing to do, and it was fun! You could joke and fish and smoke and poke fun at his dumb superstitions and then feel bad about it and then get forgiven and have another adventure together. By the end of the trip you'd be sunburned and all relaxed and you'd have saved a fellow human, to boot. And you didn't have to go on doing it, either. Once you'd saved one slave with your wit and courage, it was someone else's turn. You were free to go!

Problem is, Brent, he never turned up, my Jim, or maybe I never tried hard enough to find him, and so I've missed out on lucky Huck's great trip. And even though I realize now that what appealed to me in it was pretty selfish--be a hero while catching whopper catfish and sleeping under the stars, with the only risks being getting shot or jailed--I still want it, still long for it, and still feel guilty for not arranging it. Pretty damn self-centered. To want a slave so you can free him. So he can free you.

About Wideman's book, though. It out-Twains Twain, linguistically. I mean in its reproduction of black speech. And the miracle is that Wideman's not even white! (Another notion from Huckleberry Finn: I thought only white guys could get black talk on paper--the same way I sometimes feel that male transvestites are the only folks who know how to wear high heels.)

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).