Haarlem

Overview

“The only thing that’ll last forever is my Thirst . . . .”

So says Abel Crofton as he explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam. A New York tunnel worker who’s struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel is searching for the mother he’s never known. Despite having few clues as to her whereabouts, he soon finds a bureaucratic trail that takes him to Haarlem, the Dutch town from which the famed ...

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Haarlem: A Novel

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Overview

“The only thing that’ll last forever is my Thirst . . . .”

So says Abel Crofton as he explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam. A New York tunnel worker who’s struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel is searching for the mother he’s never known. Despite having few clues as to her whereabouts, he soon finds a bureaucratic trail that takes him to Haarlem, the Dutch town from which the famed African-American neighborhood takes its name.

As Abel ventures into more new territory, he also takes on his identity as a Black man, his rough childhood in Harlem, New York, his relationship to his bitter father, and his battle with addiction. The questions around his life only get more complicated after he meets a coldly direct waitress and a ragged jazz musician, both also bearing major scars from their pasts. The road leads to Haarlem for them as well.

Welcome to Abel’s search for salvation in another tight page turner from Heather Neff.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Heather Neff’s voice is blessed with a sustained and beautiful triumph of truth that cries out with anguish, anger, and love for a people and place. Haarlem sings so saintly that somewhere James Baldwin is smiling.”—Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams and Chango’s Fire

“With Haarlem, Heather Neff takes on a male voice and gives us a riveting look into the mind of a character who convincingly comes to grips with his fractured life. This is a book you won’t put down easily.”
—Ian Smith, M.D., author of The Blackbird Papers 
 

“A writer with depth, a sense of place, and a profound understanding of the human mind.”
Black Issues Book Review

Publishers Weekly
Abel Paulus Crofton, the biracial son of an abusive, alcoholic saxophonist and a Dutch mother he never knew, confronts his past in a journey from Harlem, N.Y., to the neighborhood's titular Dutch namesake in Neff's compelling fourth novel (after Blackgammon). Like his father, 45-year-old Crofton, a New York City subway tunnel worker, battles what he calls "The Thirst," but has spent 12 years sober with the help of his friend and sponsor, Serge. Crofton's alcoholism is both a symptom of a childhood virtually devoid of love (save the nurturing of his paternal grandmother) and a cause of a reckless, promiscuous adulthood without meaningful human connection. When his father dies at the novel's start, Crofton sets off for the Netherlands in search of his mother armed only with her name, Justina van Gelder, and a desire to make peace with himself. In Amsterdam, he meets Sophie, a strong but tender recovering addict who makes him do the hard work of introspection and accompanies him on his quest for family, including not only his mother but a long-lost brother, too. Neff's gift for snappy dialogue propels this poignant book about hope: for love's redeeming power, the ability to forgive and the gift of second chances. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Abel, a man of African American and Dutch descent, has spent his whole life in the famed New York City neighborhood of Harlem. He has always had a tumultuous relationship with his jazz-playing alcoholic father and bad luck with women. When his father dies, Abel decides to go to Holland to find the Dutch mother he never knew. Along the way, Abel meets Sophie, a Dutch Caribbean waitress who shares similar experiences, and learns family secrets that are so terrible that he nearly risks his 12 years of sobriety to deal with them. Upon his arrival in the Dutch town of Haarlem, Abel is welcomed by the locals as a Dutchman who happens to be black, which helps him become more open to the idea that not all white people are racist. In her latest novel (after Accident of Birth), Neff portrays a man trying to come to grips with his destructive past in order to live a better future; she also depicts the many complexities of life in Europe for people of color. Additionally, Neff makes the issue of an interracial couple seem as normal as any union. Well crafted and uplifting, this is recommended for most fiction collections.-Leslie Hayden, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767917506
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/5/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

HEATHER NEFF is a professor of literature of the African diaspora and the author of the novels Blackgammon, Wisdom, and Accident of Birth (Harlem Moon).

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Read an Excerpt

One

CRASH LANDING

If she'd loved me, she wouldn't have named me Abel."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that nobody in their right mind needs to be named after a sheep boy."

"I kinda like it. Reminds me of Honest Abe."

"Naw, man. That comes from Abraham. Abel is that nobody with nothing to think about except cutting up dumb animals to please that invisible white man in the sky. 'Please, Mister Lord--please accept my humble offering.' Then crack! He gets beat down by his own brother. Jeesus. I might as well be named Clark Kent. Or Moby-Dick. Or Pinocchio."

"No way, buddy. Abel is a guy who gets things done. Like, he's cap-able. He's got abil-ity. He's able-minded."

"Or maybe he's just disabled!"

"Look, man, you need to cut yourself a little slack."

"Why is that, Serge? Nobody else ever did--"

Sweet Jesus! I hate planes. Can't smoke. Can't stand the food. Can't sleep. So there's nothing to do but think. Think about conversations that lead to nothing, to questions that'll never be answered. Or about things that need to be buried deep down beneath the earth.

Buried with my not-soon-enough forgotten past.

Buried with my loving father.

And with my Thirst.

My seat above the wing was too damn noisy to let me get any shut-eye. Every time I tried to let myself go, a crash from the galley or a lurch of turbulence would slap me back to reality. Who knew what was going on back there? Could be some asshole with a box cutter or a bomb in his shoe.

Stomach turning over, I stared up the aisle at the passengers' drooping heads until my eyes fastened on the flight attendant's ass, appearing and disappearing behind the first-class curtain. Well, at least that was a nice little show.

I was aching for one of those palm-sized gin bottles and a Newport.

"No shit," I thought, continuing my imaginary conversation with Serge. "If she hadn't given me this stupid name I wouldn't even be on this goddamn plane. Wouldn't have spent that couple of bricks left over from the funeral to buy a ticket to a place where I know I don't need to go. Wouldn't be using up my hard-earned vacation looking for a woman who doesn't even care if I'm alive."

"You got something better to do?"

"You damn straight! I should be in Vegas this very minute sitting by a roulette wheel."

"Come on, Abe. You don't know a goddamn thing about gambling!"

"I might have a hidden talent. Might turn out to be a crack at the tables."

"A crackhead, more likely."

"Might even strike it rich!"

"And then what?"

"No more stinking tunnels, man. No more busted cables at four a.m. No--I'd just take my ass to a bamboo hut in the Bahamas and never be seen again."

"The Bahamas? Oh, please! You hate fishing, you can't swim and you sure as hell don't need a tan."

"So I'd write my book, Serge. Write from sunrise to sunset, live off mangoes and papayas and let the paper make some sense out of my goddamn life."

"That's crazy, Abe. How're you gonna live without your daily dose of Miles?"

"I'd just get me some steel drums and teach the natives how to play them Harlem-style."

I tried to imagine myself, naked and dreadlocked, surrounded by West Indian beauties in my thatched hut by the sea, but the plane's engines forced me back to my New York reality: night after night of dragging cables through the tunnels beneath the city, my bones aching from the constant grind of the generators. The only difference between my shifts in the tunnels and this long damn flight was that now I was strapped into a plane seat, so I couldn't get up and piss a hot stream into a dark alley. No, on a plane you were trapped in a space even smaller than a coffin.

Smaller than my own father's coffin.

"Planes is cool, boy," he used to say every time he spotted a silver bird rising into the sky from La Guardia. "Planes take you away to some other life. Get you out of the ghetto. Take you somewhere where it don't matter if you Black. Ain't no Jim Crow on a plane. Seats all the same size. Tinfoil food same for every damn body. Liquor, too."

Liquor. My hands began to tremble at the thought of a whisky sour at thirty-three thousand feet. Lick. Er. Sweat slicked my forehead and my finger inched toward the little orange silhouette of a woman on the armrest. All I'd have to do was press the button. Press the button. A lovely, melodic blink would sound and that blonde with the nice ass would pad over to my seat. She'd bend over, her breasts near my cheek, and smile.

"Can I get you something, sir?"

I would look up into her eyes and ask for just one teeny-tiny little something to hold me over the Atlantic.

"Chivas? Tanqueray? Or Beefeater, sir?"

"Make it a Chivas."

Yessir. She'd nod and vanish up the aisle, then reappear with a small white tray and a plastic tumbler filled with rock-hard ice and a blue cocktail napkin. I'd thank her and lean back, gently twisting the cap off the little palm-size bottle. Smiling secretly, I'd play a little roulette with my choice of poison, pouring a perfect arc of golden liquid into that plastic glass. Then I'd take a sip, feeling my tongue go numb under the smooth assault of the scotch. With stunning slowness I would drink my medicine, letting the icy lava roll down like a slow-motion orgasm from my scalp to my toes. Might even put me to sleep like the businessman on my left, who began to snore, his breath smelling like booze, even before the vulture took off.

"Easy does it, man," I heard Serge's warning voice: "You got to fight to control it. When it tickles your balls, ignore it. When it aches in your heart, speak to it. But when it starts screaming in your brain, that's when you got to call on your Higher Power--"

"I don't need a Higher Power!"

"Come on, Abe. You been dealing with this long enough to know you can't do it alone."

"But I am alone. And I got to deal with it alone."

"Look: Your sobriety is too damned important to get fucked up by your pride."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"Just because you hate your father doesn't mean you have to hate God. . . ."

"Sheeit," I muttered, stroking the tiny orange button, but not hard enough to illuminate it. Once again I caught a glimpse of the flight attendant's blue uniform, and my thoughts leapt to another uniformed woman--the nurse in the intensive care unit, called by the blinking buttons on my father's life-support system.

Green, blue, yellow flashing buttons. How could anyone stand the thought that one touch on the wrong button might literally end somebody's life? I thought about that Black woman's vibe. She looked mighty comfortable as she checked monitors and adjusted gauges.

"Does he feel anything?" I asked her, trying to replace the low moan of those machines with a human voice. The nurse glanced over at me, shook her head without speaking, and left the room.

I only realized when the door swished shut behind her that my father, Louis Franklin Crofton--one of the biggest motherfuckers of all time--was finally going to die.

They'd wanted to put him into hospice, but his condition went down so fast that they'd ended up just letting him fade out in the same three-by-six space where the ambulance spat him out two days earlier. An emergency call had found its way through the network of public service offices and switchboards of assistants and managers until my shift captain heard a crackling voice on the radio. The cap walked through the November night and climbed down the steel ladder to the tunnel below Seventh Avenue.

"Crofton!" His voice echoed down to where we were rewiring the city's electric grid in a floodlit manhole. Thinking that Nee Cee had found some new way to drive me crazy, I climbed up, cursing under my breath while the other guys muttered, "Shit, she's at it again!" and "Can't Abe muzzle that bitch?"

But instead of the hysterical ranting of my once-upon-a-sometime woman, I heard a cold voice on the line, telling me about Louis Crofton's collapse at some run-down nightclub. He needed surgery immediately.

I traveled to the hospital by subway, still wearing my work clothes, my boots crusty with mud. I hardened my heart against the painful memories as the train rocketed up to Harlem. And finally I stood in the center of a ring of doctors who told me that my father's liver was shot and he had nothing left to do but die.

Reluctantly I called Nee Cee and asked her to go to my place and bring me some fresh clothes. I tried not to think about the fact that she would ransack every inch of my apartment for any sign of a female presence. I knew she'd find the condoms and the number of the girl from the building next door who came up for a recreational fuck every once in a while. Nee Cee would also discover that stash of videocassettes and the couple of worn-out magazines I couldn't bring myself to throw out.

But Nee Cee's jealousy was the price I'd have to pay. I wanted to stay by Louis's side in case he said something. Standing in the antiseptic hall while nurses walked by, I figured that this was my last chance to know.

And my wish was granted--at least in part. Sometime in the middle of the second day my father asked for water. I scrambled across the room from the window where I'd been watching the gray buildings and the gray sky and the gray traffic below. I crouched beside him, taking what I could of his swollen fingers into my hand and leaning in close.

"This is some shit," Louis declared through all the medications.

"You're doing good, Dad," I muttered, almost ashamed of myself for such an outright lie.

"Don't waste your breath," he hissed. He tried to shift, but the straps and tubes held him tight. "Listen, boy, I want you to give Vanelle my mama's Bible," he said clearly. I felt his thick flesh shake in my hand. "Go and get my horn from the club. That's for your Uncle Buddy." There was a long pause. "Everything else is for you."

Silence followed. I didn't know what to say because I knew damn well there wasn't much else. I had never in my life gotten a goddamn thing from my father--except maybe my addiction to alcohol and my love of jazz.

Now he grunted heavily and closed his eyes. I brought my face down to his lips.

"Pop?" I whispered, daring myself to do what forty-five years on earth hadn't given me the guts to do. "Pop--do you know where she is?"

For a minute I thought he hadn't heard me. Or that he just wasn't going to answer. Then his eyes opened to slits and I caught a glimpse of the sly man I'd known for all of my life.

"I don't give a shit where she's at."

"I--I need to find her."

"She don't want you."

"Pop, if you know, please tell me," I said, strangling on the respect I was giving him.

"Far as I know . . ." Louis managed to turn his head--"she long since gone."

"At least--at least tell me her name."

The yellow eyes fixed on my face. "She don't have no name."

Those words hit me like a slap in the face. I dropped his hand and sat back on the chair beside the bed. I knew I should say something more to him. Something about God. But I couldn't.

Finally I stood up. My anger felt like lead in the soles of my shoes. I stood looking down on the mummified figure until I realized he was no longer breathing.

Suddenly I was jolted awake by the voice of the captain notifying the passengers that we were beginning our descent into Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport. I glanced around, realizing that I had managed to fall asleep--in fact, I'd slept right through my breakfast. The flight attendants were coming up the aisles, throwing the plastic trays into dark garbage bags. I felt like spitting to clear the airplane taste from my mouth. I felt like pissing, but the line to the bathrooms stretched nearly to the front of the plane.

Well, I made it. All the way to the Netherlands. And I managed to do it without pushing that orange button.

You're right, Serge, I thought as the seat-belt light flashed on. Easy does it.

I followed the groggy line of passengers down a corridor toward Passport Control.

"What is the purpose of your trip?" The immigration officer looked at my passport.

I'm looking for a woman without a name, I thought. "Vacation," I said.

The man looked up. "How long do you plan to be here, Mr. Crofton?"

Not a moment longer than necessary. "Ten days."

For a long, cool moment he looked into my eyes and I wondered what this white man saw: A drunk? A tunnel worker? A Black man who had no right to be here?

"Enjoy your stay," he said, snapping my passport shut and nodding me through the gate.

Shouldering my bag, I crossed the glass and steel terminal. This was it: my first view in memory of the world outside the United States. Hell--this was my first view of life beyond New York.

Soon the taxi was winding through Amsterdam's needle-thin streets, which were crowded with bicycles and parked cars. Every street seemed to border a canal, and the canals were full of houseboats and barges.

"The Netherlands was once only marshland," the taxi driver explained. I was surprised by how good his English was. "That is, of course, the reason our nation is called the 'Netherlands'--or 'low countries.' Our forefathers created our nation by building these waterways and constructing dikes against the sea."

Dikes? An image of the little blond boy in wooden shoes with his finger stuck in the wall flashed through my mind, but it was instantly replaced by the sight of a series of bridges rising in parallel arches over yet another canal. I'd secretly collected pictures of Amsterdam when I was a kid, tearing them out of magazines in the school library and hiding them under my mattress at home. But now I was surprised at how much more beautiful Amsterdam was than the photos--even in December. The taxi turned onto a narrow waterfront street.

"We are now entering the oldest part of the city," the driver continued. "Many of these buildings date back to the sixteenth century. They were constructed by wealthy merchants. You can see the--how do you say it?--the pulleys on the top floor of the buildings. They were once used to unload goods from boats docked below."

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Introduction

Haarlem examines a man’s redemption through his exploration of a new terrain and his discovery of new family members as he grapples with the nightmares of his past. The questions that follow are meant to enhance your discussion of the novel and spark conversation about Abel’s road to recovery.

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Foreword

1. What are the events in Abel’s life that have most influenced his ability to love another person?

2. What factors contributed to Abel’s decision to return to the Netherlands and try to find his mother?

3. How has Abel’s struggle with alcoholism affected his ability to interact with others?

4. Abel tells Serge that he doesn’t believe in “that invisible white man in the sky.” What are some of the other ways that Serge suggests that Abel might think of his Higher Power?

5. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, Abel is impressed by the clean, crime-free appearance of the city. How does this impression change over time?

6. How did Sophie come to live in Amsterdam, and how does her past continue to influence her life?

7. How is Abel’s relationship with Sophie different from his relationships with other women?

8. How does Abel change when he finds his mother?

9. How does learning about August Sebastian affect Abel? How do Abel’s feelings about his brother develop over the course of the novel?

10. What does Sophie teach Abel? Does Sophie learn anything from him?

11. The city of Amsterdam seems very different in many ways from New York. What new perspectives does Abel gain about his life as he spends time in Amsterdam?

12. How are issues of race and ethnicity depicted in Haarlem? How is Sophie’s understanding of herself as a Black woman different from that of African-Americans?

13. What do we learn of August Sebastian’s past? How does that information influence your perception of him?

14. Which Bible stories are referenced in Haarlem?

15. According to thenovel, what are some of the differences in the ways that drugs and alcohol are consumed in the United States and the Netherlands? What are the differences in the ways the two nations respond to problems of addiction?

16. How does Abel’s recovery from alcoholism grow through his relationships with his mother? Sophie? Serge? His brother?

17. How important are Twelve-Step Programs in the recovery of the main characters in this novel?

18. How has Abel changed by the end of the novel? What choices has he made, and how will those choices affect the lives of those around him?

19. At the end of the novel Abel says, “Sometimes it hurts to think about where I came from. But now I know it’s the only way to understand how far I’ve come.” How is this true?

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Reading Group Guide

Haarlem examines a man’s redemption through his exploration of a new terrain and his discovery of new family members as he grapples with the nightmares of his past. The questions that follow are meant to enhance your discussion of the novel and spark conversation about Abel’s road to recovery.
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