I Can't Wait on God

I Can't Wait on God

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by Albert French

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I Can't Wait on God is an unforgettable story of crime, punishment, and loss, set in the back alleys of Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood during the summer of 1950. Jeremiah Henderson and his girlfriend Willet Mercer set their sights on New York City after taking money from a pimp Willet impulsively stabs to death. Mack Jack, a gifted musician whose

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I Can't Wait on God is an unforgettable story of crime, punishment, and loss, set in the back alleys of Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood during the summer of 1950. Jeremiah Henderson and his girlfriend Willet Mercer set their sights on New York City after taking money from a pimp Willet impulsively stabs to death. Mack Jack, a gifted musician whose compositions were stolen by a big-city bandleader, struggles to rediscover his inspiration through the use of drugs.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In simple, eloquent strokes French brings the alley and its people to vibrant life. A marvelous exploration of the complexities of the human experience."
Library Journal

"An intricate tour de force, showing how love can be one's greatest enemy, and how selfishness could be a savior. . . . Overflowing with his own love and compassion, French does not pass judgment on his characters and, in the end, neither can we. . . . A blues novel par excellence."
Boston Globe

Gary Giddins
"I Can't Wait on God" has some of the wit, compassion and acute observation we expect from Albert French, as well as suspense. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A 'Spoon River' complex of subplots and vignettes spills out of five summer days in a Truman-era Pittsburgh ghetto in French's elegiac third novel (after Billy and Holly). French introduces dozens of characters in this relatively short work, some for no more than a few pages. This large cast serves as a backdrop for two slender, essentially unrelated story lines that emerge from the cyclical rhythms and harsh details of back-alley life. Willet Mercer and her boyfriend, Jeremiah Henderson, strike out for New York with a bankroll and a Buick that belonged to a pimp she has murdered, but she insists that they first head for North Carolina to find the child she abandoned years ago. The second story concerns Mack Jack, a saxophone player who fears he has lost his musical ability. French poignantly captures Mack's frustration as he wanders the neighborhood in a stoic daze, trying to get his nerve back. The vignettes are skillfully drawn--whether of a minister who wears his "preachin suit" to his job cleaning downtown offices because he "wants folks to see who he is before he changes into his cleanin clothes," or of a rooster doomed one morning by its "kiss-my-ass-look." Sometimes the novel's sprawl of anecdote threatens to overwhelm the main plots (and the minor characters are sometimes more vivid than the protagonists), but French's mixture of nostalgia and horror ultimately makes for an evocative work that, alternately brilliant and melodramatic, brims with life.
Library Journal
Homewood, PA, 1950. Where the "summer night air was always sticky kind of air, that had that stinkin mill smoke stuck all in it." Where "Gus Goins's place was down off the tracks, down in that alley behind Fiance St." It is a place very different from James Agee's "Knoxville: Summer 1915" but no less lyrical--only the rhythms are different, a blues beat as opposed to symphonic strains. For alley residents, the struggles and joys of "gettin on" are momentarily disrupted by the knifing of a local pimp. Using this death as his focal point, French explores the denizens' hopes, dreams, frustrations, and sorrows. For Willet, the perpetrator, whom the pimp was hoping to add to his stable, it brings, beyond access to cash and a car and the need to flee, a resolve to see the son she once abandoned--no matter what the cost. For Mack Jack the sax man, it's about reclaiming his musical voice; for Dicky Bird, it's about scrounging enough cash picking trash to be able to afford Gus's chicken and drink. In simple, eloquent strokes French brings the alley and its people to vibrant life. A marvelous exploration of the complexities of the human experience by a vastly talented if not yet widely known author (Billy, LJ 10/1/93); highly recommended for all libraries.--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL
Kirkus Reviews
The author of two previous novels (Billy, 1993; Holly, 1995) and a Vietnam memoir (Patches of Fire, 1997) returns to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, familiar also to readers of John Edgar Wideman, for this tale of jazz, violence, and ghetto-porch culture. Panoramic in scope, and full of secondary characters, this Old-School, style narrative never fully coheres, but creates an indelible portrait of a back-alley neighborhood. Here, French captures the þhumþ of þhush talkþ that spreads like fire when a local hustler is robbed, gutted and thrown into the high weeds near the train tracks. Though the brutal white cops turn the community upside down, the regular folk know the culprits right away. Jeremiah Henderson, and his beautiful, high-yellow girlfriend, Willet Mercer, dream of New York City, and consider turning Willet out as a prostitute. When the much disliked Tommy Moses tries testing her, sheþs so disgusted that she slices him up. With Tommy's pocketful of cash, and his big car, they head first to North Carolina, where Willet hopes to see the son she abandoned at childbirth, who lives with her mother. Meanwhile, back in Homewood, the locals go about their routines: elderly Mr. Allen surveys the scene from his porch, while the women pass news over the fences; Dicky Bird with his pushcart and drunk Bill Lovitt pick junk along the roadside; and Mack Jack, a tall and brooding sax player, roams the streets, living inside the sounds, and bedding a few local women. The novel cuts back and forth between Mack Jackþs poetic interior life and Jeremiah and Willet on the road, creating a false expectation of some sort of convergence,but ends instead all too abruptly. Lots of set pieces reveal French's narrative muscle, though the drug and jazz scenes can't beat the recently rediscovered period fictions of Clarence Cooper or Herbert Simmons.

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Product Details

University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dicky Bird is sittin in the corner. Got him some chicken in his mouth and chewin as fast as he's talkin. He's talkin to Bill Lovit, but he don't know, and might not care if he did know, that Bill Lovit ain't listenin to a word he's sayin. Bill Lovit ain't been right since the fire. Sometimes he still gets to cryin. Folks say that's all right, say they'd cry too if they come home and find they house all burnt down and all them seven children burnt past knowin which one was which.

Dicky Bird is tellin Bill Lovit all about Miss Macune. Miss Macune lives up there at the far end of the alley. Folks don't see her much. She keeps herself in that big house all by herself since that man of hers died, and that's been some twenty years or more. Dicky Bird is sayin, "Ah wents on in there. Ah tells ya, that woman was talkin ta somebody the whole time Ah was in there. And it sure wasn't me, Ah tells ya that. And there weren't nobodies in there cept me. She wants me ta come back up there and gits them leaks she's got. Them pipes ain't nothin but rust. Ah tries and tell her that. Ya know, tells her she needin some new plummin in there. She gits ta talkin ta me and at the same time she talkin ta whoever ain't there. That's when Ah come on out of there."

Gus Goins's jukebox got to seemin like it was bouncin. Somebody want to hear somethin that would make them move, wanted to hear some drums beatin, hear that music that gets sweat to rollin. Olinda Harris gets to swayin with that drum beat. Bobby Rose tries to get closer to her, move with her sways, but she don't let him. That blue dress she's got on becomes a blur of color in his eyes.

The black, sticky, hot air of midnight isstill, hoverin above Gus Goins's place in the alley. The beat of some drum and now the squeal of a horn get stuck in the air, squiggle there. Alley cats stray in the night, eyes glowin and tails curled. Gus Goins's chickens squat in them coops, quiver when them alley cats come by. That music is still jumpin. Olinda Harris's hips sway and roll. Dicky Bird is watchin and still chewin on that chicken, just about got them bones clean. Folks sittin back in the corner just watchin the night go by. They might take a little sip out their paper cup, give somebody close to them a little talk, then they get to starin at Olinda Harris or just starin at the nighttime goin by. Jeremiah Henderson is sittin way back in a dark corner, he's sippin from his cup, but he ain't watchin Olinda Harris or talkin to nobody. Folks know he keeps to himself, got that kind of stillness about him. He ain't got to say nothin for them to know he's there.
Back in that back room, Al Johnson has some sweat comin down in his eyes and is up in somebody's face. "What ya talkin about, huh? What ya talkin about, motherfucker? Ah want my motherfuckin money, man. What the fuck wrong wit ya? Ah wants my money."

Richard Norris is shoutin back at Al Johnson, "Man, ya goin ta git yer money. Ah done told ya, now gits out my face wit it."

Pete Turner done lost all the money he had and tries to borrow some more. Asks folks, "Lets me hold somin? Ah gits it back for ya fore the night's over."

Folks tell Pete Turner, "Ya gots ta be crazzy."

Mosquitoes were buzzin and bitin at anything in the light hangin out on that back porch when Pete Turner went on out the door. He went on past where the glow from the light failed to go any farther, then stumbled and slithered up the dark path that goes to the alley. Some cat curled its back up in the dark, hissed and vanished in the night, only leavin the brief death of its sound skirtin in the air.

Pete Turner reaches the alley, takes a few stumblin steps until he gets to one of them back alley fences. He stops, sways while the splashin sound of his urine hits the fence. He jerks away from the fence and starts up the alley, leavin some short grunts behind.

Olinda Harris has left, took her sweet ways on home. Bobby Rose still talkin about her, sayin, "Ya all just wait. Um goin ta get that, yeal."
Gus Goins's moonshine takes Bill Lovit on home, too. Takes him up the alley, then he cuts across Dunferline Street until he's on Susquehanna Street. The moonshine he's carryin in his gut begins to carry him as he passes through the lot still filled with ash and jagged burnt timber that been his house, reaches the shack he's built in what been his backyard. The moonshine whispers, too, tells the dark dead faces of his children to leave him be.

Jeremiah Henderson looks up and keeps starin into Dicky Bird's face while Dicky Bird's sayin somethin about the late hour and, "Yeal, Ah think um goin on out of here.

Gots ta git me some sleep ..." Dicky Bird's words drift as soon as his eyes fall from Jeremiah Henderson's face, then he gets up and staggers away. Jeremiah Henderson says nothin, stares into the dark space where Dicky Bird's been.
Gus Goins's chickens were stirrin, some distant alley dog was barkin. Dark eyes on a dark face looked into the night, searched where the dark lay low along the alley fences, glanced away to where the alley began or ended. To where it became Homewood Avenue, where streetlights hung far in the night. Jeremiah Henderson lowered his eyes from them lights. Closer by, the browns, grays, and greens of the row houses were only black in the night that Jeremiah Henderson walked through.

When the sun came up, it came up over them hills up in Wilkensburg. Then it wasn't too long fore them sun rays started lightin up the alley. Officially, the alley was named Annon Way--somebody that was important named it that. But folks livin back in the alley didn't know who and never asked either. Annon Way hadn't changed much since they put it back there to make some room for them wagons to get down in between them front street houses. Then somebody built some back alley houses and them folks that didn't have that front street-livin money could live in them back alley houses. Back alley folks seemed to be a little different from front street folks, seemed to do a little bit more sittin on them steps and porches they had back there. When nighttime came, a lot of them front street folks from all around would get to comin back in the alley. Everybody knew how to get back up in Gus Goins's place. Before that Second World War got started, white folks used to live back in the alley and out on them front streets, too. After the war, Coloreds started tricklin in them alley houses, right before the white folks started gushin out.

Mister Allen got one of them alley row houses first, got that second one from the end. He told folks that house was just what he was lookin for. Lester Jones got that row house on the end. Mister Allen said he could have had that one on the end if he would have wanted it, but he wasn't givin that white man all that extra money to be on the end of anything. Mister Strayhorne moved right next door to Mister Allen. He'd been knowin Mister Allen from way back down in North Carolina. Mister Strayhorne's wife, Lilly, say Mister Allen's a fine man. She say, Mister Allen got plenty of respect for himself. She say she wish some of them damn fool-actin niggers that be comin around there get some of that respect Mister Allen gots.

Mister Allen is out on his sittin porch tryin to get as much of that mornin quiet as he can get fore them alley children get to runnin around and yellin all day. Some of them alley dogs have got to barkin and Mister Allen looks up, squints his eyes some, and looks down the alley and sees that old cart comin up through them early mornin shadows. Mister Allen can't see Dicky Bird, just that big old rotten wood cart with them old horse-wagon wheels comin. Mister Allen puts his head back down, he don't have to see Dicky Bird to know it's him comin, that cart and Dicky Bird is the same thing anyway. Next thing Mister Allen knows, Dicky Bird is lookin up in his face sayin, "Mornin, Mister Allen."
Mister Allen looks down at Dicky Bird, gives Dicky Bird a little mornin grin, then says, "Mornin, Dicky Bird,"

"How ya be ta-day, Mister Allen?"

"Um just fine here, Dicky Bird. Looks like we gots us a nice day comin. Ah hope it ain't too hot."

"Yes, sir, Mister Allen, this here heat can gits ya."

Some alley woman gets to callin her cat. Dicky Bird wipes some of that cart-pushin sweat off the back of his neck, looks up at Mister Allen, and says, "Ah hears Mat Hicks is dead."

Mister Allen gives a little gasp, then asks Dicky Bird, "Where ya hear that?"

"Ah seen Eddy Pope this mornin and that's the first thing he tells me."

"Lord have mercy. Ah just saw Mat Hicks up on Homewood Avenue, couldn't have been but a day or so ago. We stood up there and talked a good bit. What they say happened to him?"

"He just fell on over. Eddy Pope say they all up Mott's place just sittin around. And the next thing they knew, Mat just sittin there and not movin or sayin nothin. They say his eyes were wide open, but he wasn't movin or sayin nothin. Eddy say he yelled over to Mat, ask him what was wrong wit him. Eddy say Mat ain't said nothin back at all. Then Eddy say it was just like watchin some tree fall. Ya know, ya cut it and it don't seem ta fall, it just seem to stand still. Then all of a sudden it comes down. Eddy say Mat topple on over like that. They'd know he was dead then, know he wasn't havin any liquor in him."

Dicky Bird goes on up the alley, pushin that cart of his. Dicky Bird has some pickin to do, pickin at what folks didn't want anymore. Mister Allen goes on with his early mornin thinkin. Mister Allen still sittin quietly, sometimes starin down the alley and sometimes just lookin down at them shadows layin on the porch steps. There's a quick rattlin sound, then some real fast-soundin footsteps fillin that quiet mornin air. Mister Allen looks up, knows he'll see Jimmy Maben comin out his house. Jimmy Maben gives Mister Allen a quick, "Good mornin, Mister Allen. How ya ta-day?"

"I'm fine there, Jimmy. How you?"

Jimmy Maben's hurryin down his steps and tellin Mister Allen, "Got ta make this day, ya know."

Mister Allen yells out, "Dicky Bird was by here a little while ago. He say he heard Mat Hicks is dead. Say Mat just fell on over."

Jimmy Maben slows his gettin-to-the-mill walk with a quick turn of his head. "What?"

Mister Allen goes on and tells Jimmy Maben what Dicky Bird done told him. Word sounds seemed to hang in that mornin air for a while as Jimmy Maben walked on down the alley still shakin his head. But that mill was waitin on him, told him to hurry that step. Mister Allen used to work them mills, worked out on that Curry Furnace in Rankin, used to walk them five miles every day to get there. Watchin Jimmy Maben goin on down the alley, Mister Allen wished he was going, too. But he had to come out that mill with what back he had left. He told folks, "Now I like to work, but thirty years out there can get you. I miss that payday comin."

That Miss Duncan come out on her porch. She has that row house down next to Jimmy Maben's. She call herself Miss Duncan, but folks know she ain't never married that LeRoy Duncan. She just pretends to be that man's wife while she spendin all his money. Everybody knows that. She gives Mister Allen an early mornin what-ya-lookin-at look. Mister Allen gives Miss Duncan a nod of his head, then he looks away, anyplace. Mister Allen don't like that woman's evil ways, at all. Mister Allen can get mighty upset with that kind of actin that Miss Duncan be carryin on with. Miss Duncan goes on back in the house.

Mister Allen had him a good woman. Adline. She was a real respectful kind of woman, always called Mister Allen "Mister Allen," but she got that cancer all up in her breast. Next thing Mister Allen knew, she was dead. Mister Allen didn't marry Miss Allen til he was fifty-five and Miss Allen was thirty. Mister Allen had him a woman before, but he don't say nothin to nobody about her.

Some of them alley children started comin out and puttin some noise in that early mornin air. Mister Allen was still sittin on the porch when he heard that distant rattle of a door comin open. He looked up, knew what he would see, then put his head back down. That noise them children were makin seemed to still in the air, stay there. Mister Allen kept his head down for a while, then slowly looked up and watched that woman of Jeremiah Henderson's go down the alley.

Them new alley bricks were red, but down where Gus Goins's chickens were runnin around, them alley bricks were those old kind, them ones they first put in and ain't thinkin about takin up. They didn't have any color to them that folks even thought about unless it was the green they saw from them weeds growth up between them. Dark eyes kept starin down at the cracks between the bricks.

Gus Goins's chickens flapped their wings and scooted from the sound of quick-clickin heels comin. Willet Mercer kept her head down, wasn't thinkin about Gus Goins's damn chickens. There was a flow to her black hair that seemed to keep with the rhythm of her walk. It was always a quick walk, but like the dark hair, the walk would flow through the stillness of the early mornin, seem not to touch or be touched by the alley.

That early mornin sun would seem to linger, stay up over them hills in Wilkensburg, then all that heat it was bringin would seem to come all at the same time. Everything would get hot; red alley bricks would get to glarin. Mister Allen been gone in the house. Them alley cats and dogs done climbed up under somethin lookin for what shade they could find. Little beads of sweat that was stickin on them dark bare backs of them alley children playin out in that sun got to poppin and makin them backs shine hack at the sun. All that yellin and carryin on them children got to doin chased anything that was quiet away.

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—(Alan Cheuse, on National Public Radio's All Things Considered)

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