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The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)
Saturday Review, August 22, 1970
Can one still shed tears for blacks of the lower middle class? Is their misery too ordinary, their suffering too quiet to arouse the compassion of an age addicted to extremes of violence? Can we, after our adulation of Eldridge Cleaver, still feel that Uncle Tom was human, too; had a tragedy of his own inviting more than contempt? These four black writers would quietly say yes. Their novels explore the agony of the respectable and reveal those forces that give decency a horror all its own.
When the Fire Reaches Us is set in Detroit during the summer of the great riot. But, even in flames, Barbara Tinker's Detroit is like a quiet Southern town, filled with decent, gentle people. Even Maybelle, the prostitute, is a solid working girl: "Now I want to make it clear that Maybelle is not one of your trashy whores who hooks for the fun of it. She is in the business strictly as a way to make a living and she is a very ladylike individual." And indeed she is. In fact, all of Mrs. Tinker's characters are ladies and gentlemen who, though they feel themselves victims of white atrocities, never lose their Christian charity. "How come white folks hate us so much? We ain't never done nothing to them, has we?" is the closest one woman can come to outrage at the police's murder of a black child.
Clearly, the author meant to tell her story from the point of view of those who would not burn or loot, but instead cared for children displaced by the fires. The narrator-hero, Danny, and his wise old mentor, UncleAmbrose, do not waste their lives in bitterness against whites. Ambrose has learned to live without "letting that Man get under his skin." He has also lived without letting a woman or his adopted son get under it either. In fact, Danny and Ambrose exist without any strong feeling at all. They are helpful and kind; they ask nothing for themselves from blacks or whites. And they are, in the most profound sense, alone.
A pall lies over this novel, a spell that turns all its characters into the living dead. Mrs. Tinker is so intent on establishing the good works of her heroes that she never sees how hard won is their goodness, or at what deep levels it was forged. Their very deadness suggests how dearly they have paid for their equanimity.
If emotional aridity is the price for living in Mrs. Tinker's Detroit, it is also the price Al Young's hero pays for getting along with his grandmother. Snakes starts out as the tale of how MC, a Detroit high school student, discovers jazz. But it quickly turns into a tedious success story of how "Snakes," a song MC wrote and recorded, becomes a local hit. Although Young's inert, stifling prose rarely conveys the rhythm or texture of the music MC tells you he loves, it is well suited to conveying MC's reaction to the grandmother who reared him, "the last person in the world [he] would want to hurt."
All this woman asks of MC is that he "mind her," finish high school, and "make something" of his life. But at the book's end, when MC gets on a bus for two weeks alone in New York, he realizes with great surprise: "For the first time in my life I don't feel trapped ... and I'm going to try and make this feeling last for as long as I can." Had MC reached that state earlier in the novel, the book might have been less tepid. As it is, MC avoids conflict of any kind. In the process of "minding" his grandmother, but not letting her get under his skin, he becomes too thick-skinned even to sense how cramped he is.
Snakes and When the Fire Reaches Us are themselves in the throes of precisely that constriction which proves fatal to Uncle Ambrose. One suspects that, like MC, Mrs. Tinker and Young are "minding" some symbolic grandmother, some force of tradition that exerts a terrible pressure to be "correct" and "nice." But novels that are too "nice" to look searchingly at human conflict or passion are doomed to miss the point of both.
In contrast, Cyrus Colter, who began to write ten years ago at the age of fifty, makes brilliant fiction out of uptightness, exploring the disease with the awareness and precision of a first-rate clinician. The Beach Umbrella is a remarkable collection of stories about the isolation and emptiness of the lower-middle-class black, and of those who rise to wealth and social prominence only to find the same despair at the very center of themselves. Whether his characters are rich or poor, lusting, after expensive clothes or unattainable women, all are crushed by a sense that some vital force is missing from their lives. And this consciousness of loss most affects those industrious family men for whom life is an endless series of obligations.
Elijah in the title story is a white-collar worker who is ridiculed by his wife for not taking a more lucrative factory job. The more she complains, the more he yearns for his Saturdays on a beach at the edge of Lake Michigan, where he finds "life": those laughing, joking people whom he observes from afar seem to contain all the world's mirth under their beach umbrellas. Chased away from their parties, Elijah takes money from his hard-working twelve-year-old son to buy a beach umbrella of his own, and the day a group gathers around his umbrella he comes as close as he can to joy.
Colter powerfully conveys the fervor of Elijah's longing, and the force with which his emotional tightness strangles his single day of fulfillment...Alice Walker. Copyright � by Henry Gates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.