Monday, January 11, 2010

The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger

by Cecil Brown

I didn't know much about this book or its author, but I picked it up because it seemed as if it might be some sort of bridge between the more intellectual and literary work of people such as Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead and the supposed gritty urban "real"-ism of the gangsters-drugs-money-bling-and-sex novels that are so popular these days.

Skimming the introduction and preface, I saw that — despite the words in its title and some of the language inside — it got positive reviews in fairly conservative Time magazine and the Sunday Review of Books. Those reviews (and others, I'm sure) cited the book's exploration and deconstruction (my word, not theirs) of black male identity and myths of black male masculinity and virility, making requisite (inevitable?) comparisons to Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man.

Throughout the majority of the book, I was thinking it didn't seem to be measuring up to the comparison. Toward the end it started getting interesting, however, and I was especially excited to read a quote that put me in mind of one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite books of all time, Toni Morrison's Sula:

"The black lover was a true warrior, a true soldier who is doomed, cursed, to fighting a perpetual battle with an elusive enemy, and with the foreknowledge that he can never be the victor, and fighting every day with this foreknowledge that he can never be the victor makes him victorious every moment of his life. His only security being in knowing that, as a black man, there is no security. Not as long as the world is the way it is."
That last sentence fragment is a bit distracting, and it too easily gives away the hard-won victory, leaving power squarely in the hands of the Man rather than gathering the paradoxical power of having nothing left to lose. (Nod to Janis Joplin.) But still, things were getting meaty, and I was still excited, even though it was obvious by this point that the good stuff was all crammed into the last 20 pages.... Alas, the philosophizing was coming thick and heavy — too heavy, and too explicit. The characters were actually saying the things that the reader ought to be inferring from their actions or from narrative hints and nudges.

All the ingredients are present, but the final result is lacking finesse. Also, there's a noticeable streak of misogyny and homophobia, which isn't surprising but is still disappointing, especially considering that the author had made the acquaintance of some very notable gay and/or female African American expatriates.