Sunday, March 05, 2017

Native Son (1940)

Native Son is a remarkable American novel, with Richard Wright mixing up two oppositional elements. The first is a novel of social realism, by one more 20th-century writer influenced by John Dos Passos, reminiscent of, say, The Grapes of Wrath for fitting its narrative into the stream of great American stories. The context is Chicago, decades after the Civil War and the great postwar migration to the cities of the North. Wright expertly details the realities of life in Chicago, the de facto racism which Northerners have always specialized in, using the blunt force weapon of the police (and the National Guard as deemed necessary ... watch Donald Trump on this one) to intimidate, ghettoize, and segregate Negroes and whites. Within this nicely worked out context, however (including lucid observations on how "Communist" efforts toward change fit into the social and political milieu), Wright has inserted phantasms of horror: huge rats infesting tenement apartments, unimaginable poverty and violence, and finally a crime that goes ludicrously over the top. This is a great novel, a really great novel, with narrative currents like a flooding river. The first of its three long sections (named "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate") is best for the shock and awe impact Wright pulls off here, over a hundred pages uninterrupted even by line breaks, unfolding unbelievable and horrific events of a single day. Bigger Thomas, our hero—bearing one of the great names in American literature—commits the worst crime possible for a black man, the murder of a white woman. (The murder of his girlfriend Bessie is actually much more heinous, but Wright obviously knows black on black crime holds little interest for white majorities.) Not to go white on you with the comparison, but this is some clear forerunner to Eminem's "Kim," a fantasy adventure that travels deep into the interior of a brooding vengeful mind, where what we experience is shocking in a casual, almost light-hearted way even as it throws a spotlight on our worst taboos and sometimes seems to be laughing about them. Bigger Thomas is no thug, he is one of the most complicated characters in American literature, probing at the perceived limits of assimilation, racism, American justice, and the soul of a human being. Indeed, Thomas's crime is so terrible, so extreme, it is hard to have sympathy for him. But it's not hard to understand him. One of my great struggles with Native Son is how exactly to take Thomas. This novel cries to be read more than ever. Fresh and powerful and still amazing.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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