‘Maybe this is a detective story,’ a character thinks in John Edgar Wideman’s novel Philadelphia Fire (1990). It’s a reasonable suspicion, and would be for anyone in any of Wideman’s books that I’ve read. But they are not detective stories. Often structured around a quest, for a missing child, a vanished woman, a former self, a meaning, an answer, they finally take the form of a flight, as if from a horror too great to bear or name, a shock one can only circle again and again, and at last abandon. ‘Do I write to escape, to make a fiction of my life?’ Wideman asks in his memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984). ‘Wasn’t there something fundamental in my writing, in my capacity to function, that depended on flight, escape?’ But Wideman is not avoiding the shocks and horrors, he is allowing himself to be haunted by them, evoking their aftermath in a series of deft and ingenious pictures, taken from all kinds of angles by a restless imagination. The aftermath, though, is as close as he gets, and the need to flee even from that is a measure of the force of the original blast.
What blast? Was there just one? A writer in Philadelphia Fire feels the need to explain ‘that he must always write about many places at once’. Many times, too. Sometimes this imperative produces a fairly loose universalising of local experiences (‘She was the body of woman. No beginning, middle, end to her life. All women. Any women’), but more often, and particularly in Wideman’s most recent novel The Cattle Killing (1996, now published in the United Kingdom for the first time), it reflects a convincing theory of repetition. Certain acts, Iynchings, burnings, rebellions, betrayals, must recur because the conditions and assumptions that cause them have not changed. ‘Philadelphia was a prophecy of other cities to come,’ we read of the plague time in the 18th century, and the prophecy includes not only future Philadelphias, but Cape Town and Pittsburgh, 20th-century cities to which the narrative leaps in its last pages.
The shock of Philadelphia Fire is the shock named in the title, the burning and bombing, on the orders of a black mayor, of a black community in a house on Osage Avenue. The event is briefly recalled in The Cattle Killing. There the shock takes several other forms as well: what we might call the invention of race by 18th-century white American Christians, who one day decided to segregate their formerly unsegregated churches; racial slurs and allegations flung about during the plague; the murder of a mixed-race couple in the Pennsylvania countryside; and across the sea in South Africa, the animal massacre which gives the book its title. Heeding a false prophecy given to a girl in a dream, the Xhosa kill their cattle in the belief that this sacrifice will bring about a new world. Instead it hastens their end. Wideman offers various readings of the moral of this story. Not just: ‘Do not kill your cattle,’ but: ‘Do not speak with your enemy’s tongue. Do not fall asleep in your enemy’s dream.’ Later he suggests that the Xhosa are ‘bewitched by a prophecy that steals them from themselves’.
What is striking about these horrors is their mixture of simplicity and complexity. Raw, mindless prejudice stands side by side with convoluted self-deception, and a willingness to do the enemy’s work for him. There seems to be a point, too, where the horrors are not only public or historical; where the political tips over into the personal. At the beginning of The Cattle Killing, an unnamed writer is about to read his manuscript, presumably the bulk of the book we have in our hands, to his father. ‘Setting out for his father’s house he leaves everything behind’ is the forceful opening sentence. At the end, a book called The Cattle Killing is read and commented on by the writer’s son. ‘A fine book,’ the son says in a letter, but he also thinks: ‘As most of his father’s books, this one also seemed inspired by something unsaid, unshared, hidden. Silent at the core.’ We don’t know what the writer’s father thinks, but we do see the writer’s hankering for a continuity across the generations, something that is always broken by the violent events Wideman keeps returning to. A casual-seeming line in Philadelphia Fire speaks volumes of silence: ‘Playing father, son and holocaust to the kids running wild in streets and vacant lots.’ What are we to make of this joke, terrible in every sense?
The plot-line of the manuscript written and read by fathers and sons concerns a young wandering preacher in 18th-century Pennsylvania. He announces the gospel in the woods, has epileptic fits and visions, is almost killed in a snowstorm and then cared for by a kindly couple; tries to save the life of a young black servant made pregnant by her philanthropic and negro-friendly master – in her case more than friendly. Wideman gives us all kinds of voices, including those of the philanthropist’s blind wife, the servant, an African employed as factotum by the painter George Stubbs. Some of these impersonations are more appealing than others, and there is a dispiriting amount of antiquing going on, as in ‘My garments, good lady,’ and ‘I was a poor servant girl, possessed nothing but the curse of youthful beauty,’ and ‘The old fellow has essayed too much this time.’ This doesn’t stop the old fellow wearing a parka, so you wonder how Wideman is seeing these scenes. But the variety of the voices is more important than any notional authenticity, and Wideman, shrewdly if self-consciously, shares his worries with us.
He was not the African youngster, never was, never would be ... What he shared with the 18th-century African boy whose story he wanted to tell ... would be testimony witnessing what surrounds them both this very moment, an encompassing silence forgetting them both, silence untouched by their passing, by the countless passing, of so many others like them, a world distant and abiding and memoryless. The terror of its forgetfulness, its utter lack of concern would be unbearable unless he imagined something else.
There is a further horror here, to add to the ones I’ve mentioned: that memory itself discriminates, and that forgetting your own past because others choose to forget it is also a way of killing your cattle.
Brothers and Keepers is an intricate, painful account of Wideman’s response to his youngest brother Robby’s crime and life sentence, and a detailed re-creation, as close as Wideman can make it, of Robby’s own perception of what happened and was still happening to him. When the book closes Robby has taken an engineering degree in jail, but he is still in the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, and conditions are getting worse. This edition has no up-date to tell us any more of the story.
The narrative opens in Laramie, Wyoming, where Wideman, an established and well-regarded writer, is teaching literature and creative writing at the university. The time is late 1975, and Wideman gets a phone call from his mother in Pittsburgh. Robby is on the run, wanted for armed robbery and murder. Some three months later Robby shows up in Laramie with two companions, spends the night, moves on. The next day he is arrested, taken back east for trial, and after two years in gaol, he is sentenced. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was denied in 1981.
We learn that Robby, the youngest of four black children growing up in the Shadyside district of Pittsburgh, was always a little ‘wild’. Shadyside was a predominantly white area, and ‘black was like the forbidden fruit,’ Robby tells his brother. He soon found the fruit in the nearby neighbourhoods, and spent much of his young life on the street, drinking, doing dope, having parties, and dreaming of the big time, a sort of gangster/pop star fantasy involving huge cars and slinky girls, and a large cheque presented to Mom so she could buy a house. This at least is how Robby tells it with retrospective irony, but the irony only marks his distance from the dream, the gap between the old imagined life and the reality of the prison, doesn’t undercut the power the dream had at the time. The way Robby is going to make it big is through drug money, buying heroin in Detroit and selling it in Pittsburgh, but then everything goes wrong. Robby is arrested for small-time dealing before he can get to the big time. When he is released, the heroin that he and his friends have bought turns bad before they can sell it. And finally, a supposedly simple con job – taking money from a fence for a load of television sets Robby and friends haven’t got – becomes a disaster when one of the friends shoots the fence and the fence dies.
A murkiness enters the story around here, both in Wideman’s re-creation of his brother’s version and in Wideman’s own commentary. Both brothers rightly reject the notion that Robby, or any other criminal, is categorically different from other humans, or perhaps not human at all – many of Wideman’s most eloquent pages in this book concern the functioning of the prison system as precisely an instrument of this mythology, a locking away of miscreant others as if they had nothing to do with us. A prison is ‘a two-sided, unbreakable mirror’, Wideman says. ‘When we look at you we see ourselves. We see order and justice. Your uniforms, your rules reflect human discipline ... When prisoners gaze into the reverse side of the mirror they should see the deformed aberrations they’ve become.’ Should see, and do see, unless they have reserves of strength and self-worth rarely to be found in the outside world, and Wideman’s climactic perception is that ‘the character traits that landed Robby in prison are the same ones that have allowed him to survive with dignity, and pain and a sense of himself as infinitely better than the soulless drone prison demands he become.’
The alternative view of Robby’s circumstances seems to be that crime is a chain of bad luck, a matter of poor timing or getting caught. If you don’t get caught, it’s just business. This is a fine satirical argument about a money-making society, and many movies and novels thrive on it, but satire is no way to come to terms with your own past. When Robby in jail thinks of the drug-lord life he might have had, he doesn’t think it’s wrong, he just thinks it’s dangerous: that he might be dead now instead of alive in prison. I’m not suggesting that Robby needs to moralise more or repent fulsomely, or that either brother needs to start thinking like protected white folks, only that a whole moral dimension is missing here, a sense of what was wrong apart from the accidents. The odd moments when Robby does repent or analyse his faults are the least convincing things in the book. He always wanted things to come easy, he says. Now he knows that the hard things are the ones that count. He wanted not money or power but glamour, the sense of being someone that only the dressy, glitzy, risky life could give. Fine, but who doesn’t want these things, and why was Robby prepared to go for them in this way? And isn’t there something defeated about these particular claims to glamour, a sense of limping bad luck inherent in them, as if all they could do was fail?
Wideman the writer is fully aware of these problems, and leaves plenty of spaces in his book for the unsaid and unsayable. And there are two regions where the otherwise missing moral dimension, without filling up those spaces or providing all the answers, puts in a striking appearance. One is the relation of both men, in and out of jail, to their mother. For Robby, she is the real victim of his crime. He is ‘damned sorry’ a man got killed, but not sorry for robbing white people or for having a good time. He can scarcely bring himself to think about his mother’s suffering.
I tried to write Mom a letter. Not too long ago ... I wanted Mom to know I knew what I’d done ... After all she did for me I turned around and made her life miserable. That’s the wrongest thing I’ve done and I wanted to say I was sorry but I kept seeing her face while I was writing the letter. I’d see her face and it would get older while I was looking. She’d get this old woman’s face all lined and wrinkled and tired about the eyes. Wasn’t nothing I could do but watch.
For Wideman, the mother is the person who knew about Robby’s trouble when everyone else managed not to see it, who was as helpless as the rest but not as ignorant, and whose example teaches him the true meaning of the word ‘unbearable’. She is talking about the summer heat in Pittsburgh, but Wideman expects us to see how the real heat can become a wide-ranging metaphor.
‘Unbearable’ is my mother’s word. She uses it often but never lightly. In her language it means the heat is something you can’t escape ... Unbearable doesn’t mean a weight that gets things over with, that crushes you once and for all, but a burden that exerts relentless pressure ... Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne, but what must be endured for ever.
The mother is also the tolerant black person who is horrified by the sheer repetition of oppressive patterns in American society, and this takes us to the second region where the moral dimension reappears, a territory somewhere between sociology and politics. If we can’t fully understand Robby’s individual case, and Wideman doesn’t pretend to, we can certainly see – can’t fail to see unless we wilfully avert our eyes – the larger world of ruined or banished opportunities which is the inheritance of far too many American blacks. It’s not that the misery of the ghetto excuses crime, we don’t need a weepy story of that kind. It’s that the very conception of crime changes if justice itself seems to deal in segregation. Is American justice really in such bad shape? One hopes not, and I believe not. But it is perceived to be so by a large proportion of the population, and we can’t ignore this perception. More important, we can’t just want militant blacks to learn to think the way liberal whites already do. Many of them used to think that way before the world they lived in made them militant. Wideman’s patient and open-minded mother was ‘radicalised’, he says, not by ‘demonstrations, protest marches and slogans’, but by the neglect of a sick friend of Robby’s, whom no clinic will treat, and who finally dies because he was not treated earlier. ‘They let him walk the streets till he was dead. It was wrong. Worse than wrong how they did him.’ Wideman is shocked by her tone.
No slack, no margin of doubt was being granted to the forces that destroyed Garth and still pursued her son. She had exhausted her long reserves of understanding and compassion. The long view supplied the same ugly picture as the short.
But hospitals and prisons are quite different institutions, and neither is an instrument of demonised ‘forces’ intent on destruction. Do we think Mrs Wideman doesn’t know that? Sins of omission can be discriminatory too, and you don’t need a conspiracy to achieve a conspiracy’s effects.
The other story in this book, the one hinted at in the title, is Wideman’s own. Robby, he fears, is the person he might have been, the delegate, even now, of the Pittsburgh he ran away from, via a basketball scholarship, foreign travel and a life as a writer. Wideman needs now to deny his denial of his past and that place, but is sensitive enough to know he can’t just use his brother’s plight to do this. He comes close to this form of exploitation, registers the risk, makes that, too, part of his book. He is very hard on himself (‘I figured which side I wanted to be on when the Saints came marching in ... To succeed in the man’s world you must become like the man and the man sure didn’t claim no bunch of nigger relatives in Pittsburgh’), but as with Robby, and as in Wideman’s novels, you feel something is escaping him, some truth which is not necessarily tougher or uglier than the ones he tells but certainly for some reason harder to face.
When God in Genesis asks Cain where his brother is, Cain’s famous answer seems to mean his brother is an independent creature, not Cain’s ward. It also means: How should I know? But then Cain has already killed Abel by this time, and can scarcely hope to fool God. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ means I’ll pretend as long as I can that I haven’t killed him. If you are not your brother’s keeper are you his murderer? The question gets an additional edge from the fact that ‘keeper’ is the American term for a warder in a prison. The answer is no, but then what are the other options? Brothers and Keepers is a harrowing exploration of this second question, a flight that takes us back to those old prophecies, life in the enemy’s dream.
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