Happy People Need Love, Too
By Jan Alexander
Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (304p)
Everybody loves Thassadit Amzwar. She is champagne and sunshine, always effervescent, perpetually radiant. Her creative nonfiction classmates at fictitious Mesquakie College in Chicago nickname her Miss Generosity. She gives away happiness, free of charge or obligation, to everyone around her.
Still more amazing, her happiness is not a detriment to her artistic inclinations. She wanders through bleakest Chicago with a video camera, turning ordinary lives and events into something dazzling. When she reads her creative nonfiction assignments aloud, “her voice is one of those mountain flutes, somehow able to weave a second melody around the one it plays,” writes Richard Powers, whose own literary voice is an endless display of post-modern maximalist pyrotechnics. Russell Stone, Thassa’s professor—an adjunct, called at the eleventh hour to teach this class and a man who has grown to expect little from life --gets wrapped up in the cadence of her sentences. You would love Thassa too. Just reading about her makes you want to spread a thick layer of cheer over our recession-era despair.
Thassa is, in short, a freak of nature in a bummed-out ironic world. An accidental charismatic in a culture waiting open-mouthed for its daily media feeding, a young woman doomed to wake up one day on a sizzling media platter. She has survived the civil war in her native Algeria and emerged happy; maybe she has a special genetic composition? She might not survive media frenzy in America, however. Stress and depression, like the plague bacillus, can lie dormant for years and years.
Albert Camus concluded that part about the plague long ago, in his novel by the same name, and it is no accident that Powers made his happy heroine a Berber Algerian. Her native hellhole could have been Iraq or Afghanistan or any number of war-infested countries, but to tie her to the birthplace of Camus is to reinforce what we know the author hopes – that human nature, for all of its flaws, is stronger than science. If you read The Plague as a metaphorical treatment of resistance to both Nazi occupation – ie. human carnage of any time and place – and the absurd, you can truly appreciate the homage Powers pays to Camus. As when Powers has a character named Thomas Kurton, a Cambridge-dwelling celebrity geneticist who believes humankind can remake itself, who read The Plague in his youth and decided to study science in spite of Camus’ warnings of its limitations. Now, as the story unfolds, Kurton is listening to an audiobook of The Plague, contemplating as he drives that “intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making; Kurton considers them all blatant distractions from the true explosion in human capability.”
The idea that science might, however, become the inevitable determinant of the human condition – eliminating pain and taking art down with it – is familiar ground to Powers, who has both a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius grant” in his trophy case. He had no shortage of scientific inspiration for his latest novel. Scientists have indeed identified evidence of certain genes that result in personalities predisposed to happiness whatever their circumstances. Powers had his own genome sequenced in 2008, on assignment for GQ.
Having seen a glimpse of the future, Powers has also become known as one of the twenty-first century’s notable writers of big cosmic novels to make frequent use of that most nineteenth century of literary devices, the omniscient narrator. Paul Dawson wrote in an essay that appeared in Narrative, in May of this year, that “Contemporary omniscient narrators can no longer claim the luxury of being spokespersons of authority.” We no longer accept the narrator as the voice of God, as readers of an earlier age might have. But using a narrator, as Dawson notes, is also a way of reclaiming literary authority in a multimedia world.
Power’s narrator, in fact, is a mortal fighting for his life against a technological advance that might not merely offer more instant entertainment than the novel, but might render the angst-ridden human condition obsolete, might program the human brain so that it isn’t a product of a million major or minor childhood traumas. In a species bred for the happy gene, who would need to ponder life through the comfort of literature? This narrator is a disillusioned character. He (I’m sure he is a “he”) offers this as a philosophy of life: “…the whole human race did something stupid when young—pulled some playful stunt that damaged someone. The secret of survival is forgetting. If evolution favored conscience, everything with a backbone would have hung itself from the ceiling fan eons ago, and invertebrates would be once again running the place.”
Further evidence that science is winning comes in a public debate between Thomas Kurton and a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Kurton wins, hands down, with wittier sound bites and the message that most people would rather be happy than live as fodder for the great tragicomedy that art can make of life. Sputters back the novelist: “Enhancement will mean nothing, in the long run…… We’ll never feel enhanced. … The misery business will remain a growth industry.”
In short, human nature will keep upping the ante in the pursuit of happiness. Thassa’s bliss could be evidence of that – maybe she’s happy because she has escaped from war with her youth, health and limbs all intact, while the Americans around her wallow in complacent misery, forever expecting more than life has dealt them. Powers and his narrator do not ponder this, but then the narrator is reassuringly mortal and flawed. And indeed, what I find most indicative of the narrator’s merely mortal existence is that he can’t bring himself to snoop around in Thassa’s head. Maybe she intimidates him. Certainly he is far more comfortable hanging out with Russell – and so, in keeping with Richard Powers’ proclivity to invent male protagonists whose names, like his, start with “R”, the novel unfolds mostly from Russell’s point of view. Here is a psyche that would feel like a comfortable couch for anyone whose stock in trade is the angst of the beautiful loser. Russell first appears on a Chicago subway, the narrator watching him and describing a 32- year- old man with shoulders that apologize for taking up any public space at all, who dresses for being overlooked, with eyes that halt midway between hazel and brown. He also has a face that would have made “a great Franciscan novice in one of those mysteries set in a medieval monastery,” and in fact his life has been full of self-righteous self-flagellation
Something else you should know about Russell: He was once a rising star of the creative nonfiction genre. He made his career on the strength of three essays about quirky, down-on-their-luck people. But then family members of his subjects and a certain Native American tribe publicly denounced his insensitivity to unstable drifters, and one of his subjects tried to commit suicide. As if to prove to himself that he wasn’t insensitive, Russell shriveled gradually, the narrator tells us. When we meet him he hasn’t written in years. He goes through the motions of being a decent guy, but in the name of punishing himself for his insensitivity, he has deleted the fine-tuning in his brain. He no longer registers the scales of happiness and sadness, having learned that a peak is generally followed by a valley deep enough to swallow him. “Self examination makes him seasick,” the narrator says in an early appraisal that sums up why, in a world where Thassa has stood firm and exuberant in the face of war and attempted rape, ultimately Russell’s damaged emotional register could do her in.
In drawing Thassa from an awed distance, Powers has produced at least a passing resemblance between this character and Helen, the not-human computer intelligence of his earlier novel Galatea 2.2. Helen becomes human enough that she longs to assimilate fully with her human counterparts. Thassa assimilates instantly with all of humanity, yet the narrator seems to lack the courage to scrutinize her romantic and sexual appetites. He alludes only briefly to the idea that she has a crush on Russell. By then Russell’s one semester as an adjunct at Mesquakie is over and ethically the idea rests easy. But Russell himself is so tone-deaf to self examination that he misses any special light from Thassa.
Besides, though he is only nine years old than his former student, Russell has come to think of himself as her protective foster guardian. From early on he has worried that “he’ll never be able to protect her from her own promiscuous warmth.” And to complicate matters, Russell has joined forces with a co-guardian, Candace Weld, who besides being a psychologist at Mesquakie Psychological Services Center, happens to be an attractive woman closer to his age. They meet when Russell seeks a professional opinion of Thassa’s euphoric condition. Candace, divorced with a young son, protective of her professional reputation and her mortgage, trained to motivate failed writers, is, on paper, unquestionably a more appropriate girlfriend for Russell, though she knows all the rules about boundaries and gets permission from the head of the counseling center to date him.
Their romance begins in long phone conversations, then segues into a night of sexual gymastics while watching Thomas Kurton on television. Not surprising: their excuse for being together on Candace’s bed is that Kurton is talking about a new discovery whom he calls “Jen” to protect her privacy, but he’s talking about Thassa. After they make love, missing much of the program, Russell thinks, “Thank you for raising me from the dead.” There he goes again – wallowing in his own despair. And Candace, only human and therefore prone to worrying about her own place on the planet, is trapped right there with Russell in the vale of stinginess; as a unit the two of them are tight with any kind of generosity of spirit. Individually Russell and Candace can perhaps each be forgiven for having little happiness to spread around. But late in the story, something happens that made me pass judgment upon them and decide that as a couple, they are the last two people you want to sit next to at a dinner party.
What happens has everything to do with Thassa’s rapturous trust of her two slightly older friend/protectors. The counseling center director accuses Candace of inappropriate emotional intimacy with a client. At first she thinks he means Russell. No, he says, he’s talking about “your boyfriend’s girlfriend.” Colleagues have seen Thassa in Candace’s office, and she is a student at the college. Therefore a personal friendship is inappropriate. What does a competent therapist do? Even the narrator wonders, saying “I thought (Candace)would be my mainstay and now she’s breaking.”
What she does is end it. Keeps her authority figure demeanor, turns cold just when Thassa most needs her. Thassa, you see, has by then become famous. The Happy Gene Woman was snapped up by the producers of a certain game-changing TV talk show. You know of the host, who is based in Chicago. Powers writes “It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host ....has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshall mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language.” Powers makes her Irish American and calls her Oona. After The Oona Show Thassa experiences a new sensation perhaps best described as distraught. She has to move to hide from the mobs of fans and foes. She is in a dilemma over whether to sell her eggs to a lab that offers her $32,000 to make her happiness gene available on the open market.
I didn’t truly hate Candace until the scene where she sends Thassa off into the night, then says to Russell, “I think it went pretty well. How about you?”
For a different sort of protagonist, this would have been grounds to leave his lover. But Russell needs his anchor. Still, he gets one more chance to learn about generosity, maybe even happiness, in the form of a phone call from Thassa, desperately in need of a knight in shining armor who will drive her from Chicago to Montreal, where her aunt and uncle will provide her with safe shelter from the media-crazed hordes.
Thassa’s briefly-hinted-at crush on Russell is believable, considering that deep in her soul she probably realizes that she needs protection from the unhappy world. Granted, Thassa deserves better – someone worldlier, sexier, more successful, more antsy to embrace life and road trips, more generous with the very word “love.” But in a seedy motel room at the Canadian border the entire story could take a twist; she could rescue Russell. Alone in the room, for a moment something lifts Russell “up bodily, from the inside out. Happiness.” Virtue might say that he should resist Thassa’s sexual cues, be her protector instead of her lover; the trouble is he might have to be one to be the other. He might have to choose on the spot, between his appropriate girlfriend and his young charge.
Without giving away the end, I will say it leaves us with revelations that are unexpected, painful, and ambiguous – like life but larger. You would expect nothing less of a writer as revved up as Powers, that he will lead humanity back to its artful tragedies, even if there are suddenly a lot of happy looking babies with similar features appearing in the United States. Anyway, it turns out happy people need love as much as anyone else does. Maybe even more.
Poets at the Crossroads
The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller and Something Like Beautiful by asha bandele
By Peter Aaron
Review by Brenda M. Greene
Two poets, E.Ethelbert Miller and asha bandele (spelled with lower case letters) have new memoirs out, both examining the suffering that comes with the need for love. In both cases these are followup stories to earlier memoirs. Now Miller, in The 5th Inning (PM Press) and bandele, in Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story (HarperCollins) each explore a sort of Phase 2 of their lives.
For Miller, his new memoir is a reflection on middle age, marriage, fatherhood, career choices, death and failures as he approaches 60. His first memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (St. Martins Griffin) was published in 2001. In 2003 it was selected by the DC We Read for its one book, one city program. It presents a frank portrayal of his early life beginning with his childhood in the South Bronx and continuing with his days as a college student at Howard and his evolution into a poet, father and husband.
Miller is the author of nine collections of poems. His 2004 collection How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love was an Independent Publisher Award Finalist. He is also the editor of four anthologies of poetry, including In Search of Color Everywhere (1994) which was awarded the 1994 PEN Oakland, Josephine Miles Award, and was a Book of the Month Club selection. A member of many literary boards and organizations and known for his commentaries on poetry and literature, Miller can often be heard on NPR.
In bandele’s case, Something Like Beautiful is about her journey from student to prisoner’s wife and single mother. A journalist, poet and novelist, bandele first gained recognition with her award-winning memoir The Prisoner’s Wife (Scribner, 1999), a deeply moving work that reveals the gripping tale of her decision to marry Rashid, the father of her daughter, and her struggle to hold on to a dream of a “normal marriage” upon his release from prison. Her novel Daughter (Scribner, 2003) depicts the consequences of the silences and secrets in our lives and presents a sensitively told narrative of the fragile and complexities of mother daughter relationships. bandele is also a former feature editor for Essence Magazine and the author of two collections of poems.
In The 5th Inning Miller expresses some beliefs about what it means to be a memoirist. The writer, he says, should not write to harm and should keep healing and the transformation of the self at the center of the narrative. The memoirist must decide what to include and what to leave out, for if not done carefully, he can bring harm to his loved ones, friends and supporters. Thus, the memoirist must be sensitive and committed to truth and to the courageous act of capturing those special or life transforming moments that present an authentic portrayal of his/her life.
Miller sees life in baseball metaphors, with the fifth inning possibly his last. “Everything comes down to balls and strikes,” he says. “You don’t need religion to understand this. One can keep a scorecard just like God” .
Although many youthful baby boomers may beg to differ, Miller believes that life begins a trajectory toward the end at around 50. On aging, he reflects that: ”Someone might ask about your diet or mention how you don’t look your age. But you know your age. You’re more aware of it each year when you complete an application. There are fewer boxes to check where it says ‘list age.’" And he ponders, “When do you stop reading horoscopes or simply accept the cards handed to you? How many times can you avoid death?”
He also says that as he gets older “the poems appear less and less. The personal is prose.” And he riffs on the lyrical nature of his memoir: “This memoir has a jazz feel to it. Is it BeBob? Parker and Diz? I like the energy that flows from one chapter into another.”
Central to his memoir is a quest for love. He asks which is the inning in which husbands stop talking to their wives. What happens when the passion leaves the marriage and one’s vows become “autumn” or the “fall? What is “. . . that moment when a man moves beyond desire? When he no longer needs to turn around to look at a woman?”
Miller is not afraid to display his frailties, his misgivings about the time spent with his son and daughter, and his own strained relationships with his mother, father, and brother. He is open about his failures and asks how do we cope with failure in career, marriage and life and how do we look at ourselves when we believe that we have failed as lovers, parents and friends.
Miller’s words to his son: are apt symbols for his life. He informs his son, who has kicked a basketball out of the park one day. “You don’t kick the ball! You never kick the ball! The ball is your friend!” As he sees it, wives, partners, sons, daughters and friends are our own “balls” that we should never kick away.
Still, it is bandele’s memoir that is the more despairing of the two, right from the opening line: “This is a book about love and this is a book about rage. This is a book about those opposing emotions and what happens to a woman, a mother, when, with equal weight, they occupy the seat of your heart.”
bandele paints a haunting picture of her evolution from a young woman who grew up in a middle-class environment and survived sexual and emotional abuse and the challenges of having a husband who was incarcerated, to one who learned how to love and heal herself and to establish a relationship with her daughter. Adopted as a baby, bandele harbors feelings of rejection from her biological mother and searches for love in the relationships she experiences. A victim of sexual abuse at a young age, she carries these traumatic memories into her adulthood, shaping her responses to men and perhaps affecting the men she chooses..
At times, you may wonder whether bandele is going to be able to achieve the balance she so desperately seeks. She describes depression as a drawn-out process that keeps pulling her in deeper: “At some point, it no longer seems strange to wake up each day and wonder how you will get through the first hour, the second. In the beginning it was wine every night and cigarettes that were my morphine. Eventually it was sleep. I could barely get out of bed, see friends. . . I went into what I can only describe as hiding.”
As her narrative deepens, bandele moves beyond herself and reflects on her role in her community and the larger global world, and how helping children in various villages and communities helped to save her. “The cliché is that children have as much to teach us as we do them,” she writes. “And like most clichés, those words rang empty to me until I lived them. I lived them all the way out. And now I know that they are true” She cautions the reader against self-medication in the form of drugs, alcohol and sex emphasizes the need to be fully present in the face of adversity, to accept that our lives will be filled with pain, loss, disappointment and to recognize that these elements are a natural part of our everyday existence.
Her memoir closes with a view into her mind’s eye of the reasons we have for living and of what must be done to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and educational problems in our communities. In her words:
“Renewal. Children, if life is fairly good to them, will not have to learn. This while they are still small. Adults, if we live any measure of time and with any measure of energy, will most certainly run headlong into it, that challenge to come back or not. Many of us will have to learn it over and over. We will have to figure out how to renew ourselves after the loss of a love or a job or a friend or a parent------or ourselves.”
"Brenda M. Greene is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
The Woman who Brought us Fundamentalism
Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
by Matthew Avery Sutton
Review by Jane M. McCabe
Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England 2007
In parts the life story depicted in Aimee Semple McPhersom and the Resurrection of Christian America reads like a harlequin romance (not that I read them) replete with a still-famous kidnapping and a trial that provided daily fodder for the news media, particularly in her home town of Los Angeles. But really, McPherson, one of America’s early 20th century charismatic evangelists, left her legacy in more lasting ways. She virtually set the template for the kind of right-wing gay-bashing fundamentalism that has grown into a voter faction.
This is the first book by Matthew Avery Sutton, who teaches 20th century United States history, cultural history, and religious history at Washington State University. It won the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize from Harvard University Press, awarded annually to the best book in any discipline by a first-time author. The book also served as the basis for the Public Broadcasting Service documentary Sister Aimee, part of PBS’s American Experience series. As a film, her life story has no shortage of visuals, many of which appear in the book in still photos: Aimee as a child preaching to her dolls, Aimee next to her “gospel” car, the exterior of her unique mega church, the Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles, McPherson and William Jenning Bryan, both anti-revolution crusaders, Aimee dressed in her milk maid outfit that she used when preaching one of favorite sermons, “The Story of my Life,” and so forth.
She was born in 1890 and died in 1944. During her 54 years she probably accomplished more towards resurrecting Christian America than any other evangelist. After her first husband, Robert Semple, also an evangelist, died, and after several years of traveling back and forth across the country to revival meetings, she and her mother decided to settle down and buy a piece of property on which to construct a tabernacle. They recognized that Los Angeles had become a tourist attraction and so purchased a piece of property on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. That property eventually gave rise to the Angelus Temple, with its sloping domed roof, “half like Roman Coliseum, half like a Parisian Opera House.”
Religious movements were blossoming all over post-World War I Los Angeles, and McPherson took the city by storm. Soon the Angelus Temple was one of the “must-see’s” in Southern California.
Dazzling religious theatrics and a penchant for publicity made McPherson one of the most famous American personalities of the interwar years, and evangelicalism, with its integration of cutting-edge technology, patriotism and social conservatism became an influential force in United States history. McPherson couldn’t have chosen anywhere better for her dramatic flair to flourish.
She used the stage at the temple as platform for her dramatic sermons. Most often dressed in virginal white, McPherson would appear as an angel of God. A superb director and producer with an uncanny dramatic instinct, she used animals on stage—lions, camels, monkeys—motorcycles, touching the Angelenos’ loneliness and drawing them to her temple. In so doing she won the hearts of the community and soon even well known celebrities were among her audience. When she was in Paris and looked up Charlie Chaplin, they became instant companions.
McPherson also recognized that the new technology of automobiles, highways, airplanes, radio, and motion pictures could be used to bring more lost souls to her doorstep. “If Jesus were alive today, I think he would preach parables about oil wells and airplanes,” McPherson commented. The advent of radio provided an unparallel opportunity to convert the world and reach those who could not leave their homes to attend church and those who chose not to. What broadcasting jazz can do for the feet, broadcasting the word of God could do for the heart. Soon McPherson had her own radio station. She used airplanes flying over the city to drop leaflets.
By the summer of 1925 the famous “monkey trial” was being conducted in Tennessee, and William Jennings Bryan was working to convict high school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in his classroom. McPherson, who had a deep abiding hatred for evolution organized all night prayer services to pray for his conviction.
Then came the alleged kidnapping. On May 16, 1926, McPherson and her secretary, recently returned from a nationwide crusade to establish the foundations of Christian fundamentalism, checked into the Ocean View Hotel in Venice Beach for a rest. McPherson went swimming and disappeared.
Newspapers called it the biggest Los Angeles mystery in years. Some speculated that it was another of her publicity stunts. The Los Angeles Times noticed that her radio engineer, Ken Ormiston, whose wife was divorcing him, had also disappeared, not reappearing in Los Angeles until late May.
In the early hours of June 23rd McPherson appeared in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta with marks of torture on her, telling a story of having been kidnapped from Venice Beach. She said a man and woman had met her when she came out of the water and begged her to go to their car to pray for their dying baby, but once there they had shoved her in and given her an anesthetic that rendered her unconscious, then tried to secure a ransom from the Angelus Temple. They held her hostage, she said, until one day she managed to break free, jumping out a window and trekking across the desert to Aqua Prieta.
No one ever found either the captors or the hideaway. When McPherson arrived back in Los Angeles, 30,000 people greeted her at the train station, more than had turned out for President Wilson’s visit to the city. Fans called for a full inquiry and on July 8th, 1926, McPherson made her first appearance before the Los Angeles grand jury. As the trial went on and on, the correspondence received by the newspapers revealed a divided public. On July 20th the grand jury issued its decision: 14 of 17 jurors did not believe her story, because no hard evidence had been produced.
The papers confirmed that Ormiston had been in a Carmel cottage with an unknown, heavily-disguised woman, referred to as “Miss X.” McPherson was vilified by many, who saw her as sex-starved and felt sure she was the Mysterious Madame X. The liberated young flappers of the era rushed to McPherson’s defense, as they saw in her an advocate for women’s rights. McPherson herself blamed the devil for her troubles —it was Satan’s plot to undermine one of the most extraordinary religious movements in history.
On January 20, 1927, all charges against her were dropped. In the 80 year since, the general consensus among those familiar with the case has been that she had an affair with Ormiston. Speculation continued in novels, films and songs.. Upton Sinclair wove McPherson’s story into his novel, Oil, and Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry has a character based on McPherson, Sister Sharon Falconer, whom Lewis portrayed as beautiful and eloquent, but a promiscuous hypocrite..
McPherson had emerged from the kidnapping a superstar, but she was exhausted and took refuge in her exotic new home on Lake Elsinor, southeast of Los Angeles. She remarried, this time to the man who had played the Pharaoh in her movie (she also tried to make some religious films) about Hebrew captivity, The Iron Furnace, but the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. When it ended in divorce, McPherson never found love again. She threw herself back into her work, returning to her Pentecostal roots, and in so doing earned her salvation.
After the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Depression, the Angelus Temple put the gospel into practice by opening a dining hall, a soup kitchen, and a commissary to serve the city’s indigent.
As for McPherson, she continued her crusade against evolution, believing that Charles Darwin’s findings were the biggest threat that existed to American Christianity; producing, she claimed, a brutal, inhumane advocacy of survival of the fittest and thus making social reform and charity work pointless. She also remained committed to Prohibition and believed that Depression-era strikes signaled the infiltration of Communism – the philosophy of the Antichrist – in the labor movement..
The Angelus Temple has been made a historic landmark and it still holds weekly services. Recently I was in Los Angeles and made a point of going there.
Pastor Matthew Barnett, well known himself in gospel circles as author of a book called The Church That Never Sleeps, was dressed in a blue shirt, blue-jeans and spiffy grey sneakers. Surrounding him was a band with an electric keyboard, guitars, drums and a piano. Beyond them was a curtain containing a neon light assemblage suggesting Los Angeles. The preacher’s image could be seen on several open circuit TV screens. On the screen was written, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” –Hebrews 13:8. “Greater things are yet to come,” Pastor Barnett declared. After reading about his long-ago predecessor, I was skeptical. I can’t imagine any high tech sound and light show matching the electric personality of the woman who once preached on this same spot.
Da Brick Wall
Hittin' the Bricks: An Urban Erotic Tale by Noire
Review by Loretta H. Campbell
One World Trade, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. New York, NY 245 pages, paperback $14 ISBN 978-0345-50878-2
When a self-hating Black person, or a white person pretending to be black, writes a book, the book is Hittin' the Bricks. Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there. Urban has become the code word for Black neighborhoods and culture. Except for the dialect, there is very little that is uniquely Black about this novel.
As to that which is erotic, are stories about women, whatever their race, being raped, tortured, and shot to death considered sexually arousing? True, publishers have made millions on books about sadism or misogyny. In this case, these things are happening to Black women.
It is worth noting that in this book there are no intact Black families, and the majority of the Black men are predatory. In fact, most of the people in Hittin' the Bricks are a danger to themselves and others, including the protagonist Eva.
Half African American and half Dominican, she narrates her story from her grave. Periodically, other characters, still living, take up part of the story where she leaves off. Said story moves from tenements and slums between Brooklyn and Harlem. Her father is killed horribly, and her mother, Rasheena, turns junkie, and sells her body for drugs. Then she turns her attention to Eva.
"Rasheena, who had held Eva down the first time Jahden [Rasheena's boyfriend] shot her up, [with heroin] and who had then stood by and watched as her boyfriend busted her young daughter's cherry. ..." page 6
This is the first problem with the book--language. The point of view is unclear. Who's calling Eva's virginity a cherry? If Eva describes her cherry as being busted, it's in keeping with the character. She wouldn't know the difference between rape and sex. However, it's not clear whether, Noire, the author, knows the difference.
At one point, Eva's cousin Fiyah Perez (an aspiring rapper) pleads guilty to a gun charge when in fact Eva had the gun. While in Rikers Island, he begins to wonder what will happen to him. page 53.
" Jail was a muhfuckah. The judge had slapped him with a year, but his public defender said he would prolly be out in like eight months. His heart grew cold as he contemplated surviving his term of incarceration."
Would a guy who just thought prolly instead of probably and muhfuckah instead of motherfucker, think words like contemplated and incarceration? Would a writer who writes the words incarceration and contemplated spell probably prolly?
After Rasheena assists Jahden in the repeated rape of Eva, he forces drugs on Eva and addicts her. She earns money for drugs by prostitution and fellatio on men in alleys and stairwells. Rasheena beats the girl with extension cords and starves her regularly. This is basically Eva's life before she turns 14. At this point, Rasheena evicts her because she feels Eva is competition for Jahden's favors.
On the day Eva is thrown out, she gives birth to a son. Neither Eva nor her family members knew she was pregnant. No mention is made of the possibility of a father. Eva leaves the baby with a friend, Miss Threet.
In the next chapter, now four years later, Eva is drug free and has a job as a receptionist. She lives with her aunt, herself a recovering drug addict, and her cousin Fiyah. She sends money regularly to Miss Threet for her child's upbringing.
The pregnancy is realistic because there is never any mention of contraception in this book. The foster mother is realistic especially in the Black community. Still, Eva's general health doesn't happen in real life. Having worked in girls' group homes and battered women's shelters, I know that most teenage prostitutes, and any whores who don't use condoms, suffer with STDs. Those who specialize in fellatio have constant throat STDs. Crack whores who don't use condoms are lucky if all they get is STDs and not AIDS. That's a fact. Granted that's not sexy, but neither is having a baby in the laundry room of the projects, which Eva does. If the author wants to keep it "real", with the pregnancy, venereal disease would have been a part of Eva's life too.
Although Eva has changed her location, she is still surrounded by addicts and drug dealers. The author brings in another conflict in the form of Brody. A fellow inmate of Fiyah, Brody is a drug dealer/pimp who runs Rikers Island during his imprisonment. He offers protection to Fiyah from would-be rapists on one condition. Fiyah has to promise him that Eva will be his property. Brody truly enjoys torturing and killing women and girls, and he's very proud of being a pimp. To sweeten the offer, he tells Fiyah that he's the owner of an exclusive club, Bricks. Fiyah will do anything to work in Bricks, including giving Eva to Brody.
Upon his release from jail, Fiyah learns that Eva has fallen in love and is making plans that don't include Brody. Fiyah knows Brody will kill him if he doesn't deliver Eva.
When Fiyah tells her this, she ignores him and the romance with Mello blossoms. Noire inserted a poem "Warning!" at the beginning of the book eschewing any hint of romance in Hittin' the Bricks.
"This here ain't no romance
It's an urban erotic tale"
Here is the rhythm of the book. The sentences are short, and much of the imagery is a reflection of the vocabulary of hip-hop. At one point Mello asks Eva to dance while they're in the club. "Well Mello's here now. And it's about to get better. Dance with me, Miss Lady. I got some rhythm I want bump on you."
Whatever the author's intention, the love story grounds the book and gives it meaning. As the relationship develops, Eva changes careers and begins modeling sports wear. As her career grows, she struggles with her self-image. She puts makeup on her track scars.
This is another reason why the book fails. Serious topics are introduced but not fully explored. The aftermath of drug addiction, and in fact drug addiction itself, are topics that are too weighty for this book.
The author introduces two other controversial subjects regarding Eva's self image. One, Eva doesn't perm her hair. Many Black women feel that their hair is not beautiful unless it emulates the hair of white women, hence use chemicals to destroy the nappiness. Two, the tension-laden relationship between dark skinned Dominicans and African Americans. The African American women in the book dislike Eva because her hair isn't as course as theirs. The Dominican women dislike her because her hair is not as straight as white women's. Both issues are too heavy for this book.
Despite her lover's best efforts, Brody's obsession with Eva results in her violent death and his death is at the hands Fiyah. Here the book looses credibilty again.
Fiyah walks into Brody house and kills him while he is surrounded by his lieutenants and his brothers. All of them let Fiyah walk away. Brody is hated by half of the people in the room, but this wouldn't have save Fiyah. Even in fiction, a character doesn't walk into a room like this, kill the drug dealer, and live.
Despite the fact that this is fiction, nothing about this book should shock or surprise anyone who knows anything about psychosis or dysfunctionality. Thousands of women and girls around this country and the world are suffering this kind of traumatizing abuse. Calling this erotic is trivializing their pain. Not having craft to tell the story is unprofessional.
Much has been said about the decline in quality book publishing because publishers no longer demand craft. Instead, they insist on high book sales. As a result, authors do not, or cannot develop the skills needed to write. That is what has happened here. The writing wasn't up to the seriousness of the topics raised.
However, that seems to be the subtext. Are white publishers going the way of white music producers? Meaning, should we expect to see books that promote the stereotype of Black people as homicidal and psychotic just as we hear lyrics from rappers that reinforce self and race hatred? Racist, misogynistic lyrics seem to be lucrative for music producers if not for rappers themselves. This book foretells the same lucrative, but sad fate for publishing.