I haven’t read very much black literature or drug-culture literature or ghetto-life literature but I’ve never read anything that delves as deeply and as unpretentiously into such topics as this book, whose title and author I’d never heard of before seeing it on a shelf last year. Spare language lays bare a psychology usually obscured or merely evoked by more “literary” devices or flowery diction or exploitationally extreme plots of various fiction authors. What outwardly may seem to be the largest flaws in the book – a conversational tone that retains phrases like, “Yeah man, but…” in its dialogue and lends an indefiniteness to the perspectives of its narrator; a meandering structure that hops from one memory or observation of interest to another across space and time and tends to feel inconclusive and even “shaggy-dog” on occasion; a lack of context or comparison with African-Americans as a whole (including those outside of Harlem or the one town in the South where Brown stays with his grandparents) or Americans as a whole that would detail and clarify his situation with statistics or sociological studies – are to the contrary its greatest strengths. It’s not somehow charming for its naïveté, but rather registers as sophisticated enough to understand that the best way to reach the kind of people found in this book is to speak in their language, as one of them still instead of elevated in some way by reform or later self-discovery.
The book jacket may talk about Brown’s becoming a law student – obviously an impressive achievement for someone raised in a ghetto, which lends him an authority to the reader he might otherwise not have had – but Brown the author does not, nor does he fill the text with the examples of inspirational industriousness that would occupy any movie made on the subject in the last thirty years. He describes his life more as a series of accidents, a string of happenstance and luck that sees him survive a gunshot wound, get sick from “horse” (heroin) instead of high his first time, have competent and caring authority figures who take an interest in him, get exposed and turned on to jazz music – all of these rare occurrences in his world, and each of which appearing crucial to his survival and success. In an interesting corroboration of Anthony Burgess’ often criticized and expurgated final chapter of A Clockwork Orange, it is the boredom of Claude the young hoodlum that delivers him from a life of crime rather than disciplinary correction – since this latter for him only further inscribes his previous position to a greater extent, and there even more than outside he feels he can rule the roost. Since he comes to feel sick of the game, though, he can move on to other interests like the piano and night school.
Maybe most heroic yet lifelike is his awareness and resistance of bullshit – or, more euphemistically, explanatory shortcuts for his and Harlem’s struggles – which makes his rare appreciation of positive mentors the more valuable and meaningful, and enhances the story of his own success. At the same time he’s too humane to be condescending – not ultimately, anyway – toward those who do take refuge with the Baptists, the Coptics, the Black Muslims, dope addiction or a life of crime. He never disowns or dissociates entirely from friends and family members who take such refuges, though this might be the easier course, which helps him keep a sense of what’s happening and changing on the street and demonstrates the community bond among Harlemites he argues for. He proves his singularity by moving out to Greenwich Village on his own in his teens, but proves his character more somehow by returning to Harlem within a relatively short time and staying close to his old crowd. With the notable exception of one longtime friend who once left Claude for dead but was quickly forgiven (since Claude probably would have done the same thing, he recognizes) and goes on to become a successful prizefighter, Brown seems to be the only one who keeps his head above a sort of turgid swamp of dead-end life choices and insular ideologies, all of which he appreciates even if he can’t participate.
The language at times is politically incorrect – Brown doesn’t distance himself from using words like “bitch” and “faggot” – but this actually emphasizes how correct the worldview is, because rather than simply policing oneself on acceptable terms one really has to mature past the received meanings and stereotypes associated with (but not confined to) these terms. Just as he grows out of crime, slowly developing an incipient wisdom about life that recognizes his course’s futility, he grows out of juvenile conceptions of other people, retaining the old language as a counterpoint in the same way he and others still use the word “nigger” in a sense vastly different from the pejorative. The language feels fresh and unique – “gray” for white people, a progression of terms for heroin, etc. – and Brown often stops to analyze or explain it, like the importance of the word “shit” for drugs and the closeness in spirit elicited by using “baby” between even straight men. Yet the vivid color of the words never covers the universal feeling of Brown’s specific tragedies and successes; the straightforward narration of a doomed romance with a Jewish girl and the fear for a brother fallen off the wagon and disappeared and a newfound dedication to practicing piano register as the events in any (wo)man’s life, perhaps exaggerated by contrast with one’s own immediate experiences but always approachable and graspable.