There is a typical piece of dialogue between Herzen and Louis Blanc, the French socialist (whom he respected greatly), which Herzen quotes, and which shows the kind of levity with which Herzen sometimes expressed his deepest convictions. The conversation is described as taking place in London somewhere in the early 50’s. One day Louis Blanc observed to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society.
‘Why?’ I asked suddenly.
‘How do you mean “Why?” [said Louis Blanc]–but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’
‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’
‘You are playing with words.’
‘The muddle-headedness of a barbarian,’ I replied, laughing.
From the essay Alexander Herzen, by Isaiah Berlin.
“That school is hell, don’t you understand that? The school and all those people and the television and all, that’s a bad dream, except it’s a kind of bad dream that can hurt people. But this is real, this rotten backyard and that swing. When I kissed you, that was real. The only time you’re real is when you’re doing your own thing, when you’re being absolutely yourself. Society is something somebody made up, it’s a fantasy, and when you start working as a social creature you make yourself part of the fantasy.”
She stared at me. “Do you really believe all that?”
“Definitely,” I said. “Just as I believe the entire universe began with the instant of my birth and the whole damn thing will snuff out at the instant of my death. I believe that people should work for the general good, I really do, but it should never be anything other than secondary. Once you start thinking that humanity is more important than you are, you’ve become the worst kind of traitor in the world, because you’ve betrayed yourself.”
From Up Your Banners, by Donald E. Westlake
This is a truly unique book in the Westlake canon (and I know I say that a lot, but it’s not my fault he wrote so many unique books). It’s his only book that directly addresses racism, or poverty, or the educational system. But more importantly, it’s his only book that is devoted almost entirely to a love affair between two people–indeed, one of very few books where his hero meets a girl, has (frequent) sex with her during the course of the plot, and clearly intends to marry her by the end, if she’ll have him.
Actually, this kind of story was featured pretty often in his early ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms to pay the bills, but that’s just him adhering to the conventions of that short-lived genre–a dollop of morality to excuse all the hijinks, so the book doesn’t get labeled as porn–have lots of sex with lots of people, then settle down with The One.
In his books written under his own name (and several others), the sex angle is almost invariably present, romantic subplots abound, but in this one the romance almost perversely insists on being the A-plot. The story hinges on whether this boy makes it with this girl, making it by far Westlake’s most romantic book ever–and it’s an interracial romance. At a time when they really weren’t common at all in any fictional medium. Today, we’re pretty much over it. But it was still fairly taboo back then.
Eugene O’Neill famously broke that taboo back in the 20’s, with All God’s Chillun Got Wings (people were getting the vapors that Paul Robeson actually touched a white woman’s hand onstage) but that story ended tragically. The marriage is perfectly legal, no crosses are burned at their doorway, but society’s mores, ingrained at an early age, won’t let this mixed-race couple be happy, any more than society will let Romeo and Juliet be happy, or Othello and Desdemona.
Later on, Chester Himes wrote a novel about a similarly doomed interracial relationship, The End of a Primitive–rendered a bit ironic by the fact that Himes himself made a success of his second marriage to a white woman he met in Paris, a relationship that began in 1959 and lasted until his death in 1984. But no doubt Himes felt the pull of society just as strongly.
And this book is basically Westlake telling society to go screw itself, and creating two characters with enough mutual attraction, self-understanding and strength of character to pull it off. It’s nobody’s damn business who loves whom. An opinion, by the way, that he shared with Malcolm X, at least towards the end of Malcolm’s life. They would probably have had some heated debates on certain other subjects.
But let’s give Westlake some credit here–he’s not going to write a whole book just to defend interracial love–not in 1968, roughly a year after the Supreme Court had ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Nor is he really that interested in public education, though as a father with young children, he knows it’s important, and that parents should band together to insist their children be properly schooled, and parents from under-served communities most of all.
Very little of the book takes place inside a classroom–contrary to all the best-selling ‘heroic young teacher’ books I mentioned in Part 1, Westlake carefully writes the story in such a way as to make sure his heroic young teacher never works one full day in an actual school in his entire life. He’s got a big point to make here, one that matters to him a great deal, but it’s neither racial, nor political, nor pedagogical–it’s philosophical. Mr. Westlake was an individualist above all else, and the target he has in his sights here is collectivism. Anyway, let’s get back to the book.
Oliver Abbott has shown up for work on the first day of school at Schuyler Colfax, in the fictive Brooklyn nabe of South Romulus, only to find that community activists have mobilized the locals to boycott the school–because he, Oliver Abbott, was hired in preference to a qualified black teacher currently working in a white school nearby. It takes him a long time to figure this out, though–because everybody and his uncle assumes he already knew about it.
He did not. His dad never told him. A variety of journalists from publications ranging from the Times to the Village Voice, all of whom have names that sound to him like ‘Bibble’ (one of Westlake’s beloved running jokes), keep calling to get a comment from him, and hard as he tries, he can’t get any of them to let him know what the story is they’re asking him to comment on. They already know who Oliver Abbott is (one seemingly far-right publication thinks he’s a hero of the white race), and he can’t seem to convince any of them that he’s been badly misunderstood.
The only one he can convince of this–with some difficulty–is the beautiful and self-assured Leona Roof, a black phys-ed instructor, who is involved in one of the activist groups pushing for local community control (her group is integrated–not looking to push out white teachers who actually want to teach). Trapped in the school by a raging mob of protesters (waving banners, hence the title), he convinces her to drive him home, which she does so that the police won’t have to crack people’s heads to get him through.
She assumes he’s lying about his innocence at first, but he’s so obviously bewildered and clueless, she finally realizes he’s more worthy of her sympathy than her disdain–and anyway, he makes her laugh. He also makes her very aware from the start that his interest in her is anything but platonic. Oliver figures out early on that if he lets Leona friend-zone him, he’ll never get anywhere, so he keeps making passes, which she, being a judo expert, easily deflects–but she’s flattered, all the same. He’s appealing to some part of her that’s tired of living for everybody but herself. And she, by contrast, starts making him question his own life choices–or lack thereof.
He only meets two of his home room students (nobody else shows up on the second day of school)–one is Henrietta Clark, a young black woman with a fiercely determined expression, who firmly states that she’s only there because her mother told her she can’t afford the risk of being expelled after the protests die down. She needs a diploma to go to nursing school, but she thinks that’s the only reason anybody would ever have to go to Schuyler Colfax. “If it wasn’t for TV and movies and comic books, there wouldn’t be one person in this school knew anything at all.” Kids never change–just the slang, and the available technology.
The other is James Meegan, a young man with a sort of bobbing walk that Oliver tells us he himself used to practice in front of the mirror when he was younger, because of course the coolest thing in the world to a white kid is black urban culture, and that hasn’t changed either, has it? James has no family, and supports himself by running an illegal bookmaking operation inside the school–he’s there because he sees no future for himself without an education. He seems barely literate, and Oliver writes him off as a moron.
Then as both students leave (because all he’s there to do is certify who showed up), he suddenly realizes–James is running a large bookmaking operation all by himself–all those names and figures–he’s got to be really smart! He runs after him, but it’s too late. He had a moment there, where he could have reached out, made a connection, and he blew it.
And this is one indication that Leona is right in what she tells Oliver–that he’s not a teacher–he’s been routed into the wrong profession. He lacks the temperament, the instinct for it. “Those who can’t do, teach” may be correct in the sense that a lot of rather unimpressive people end up in the teaching profession–but the fact is, being smart and capable, in and of itself, doesn’t make you a good teacher. Oliver has taken the path of least resistance, laid down for him by his father (who for all his flaws is a good administrator, and probably a good teacher in his day). But this isn’t who he is.
Oliver is what you might call a belatedly reliable narrator. He keeps jumping to conclusions about the people he meets, black and white, just as they do about him, and he keeps realizing after the fact that he’s misjudged them, or at least that they’re more complex than he’d given them credit for being–he constantly gets it wrong, but he never stops trying to get it right–his good instincts are constantly thwarted by his social programming. And this is basically the human experience, isn’t it? We have prejudices for a reason–they save us a lot of hard work. And that will probably never change. But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting it.
The school is shut down entirely, until some kind of compromise can be hammered out between the various groups. And over the next week or so, temporarily liberated from adult responsibility, Oliver and Leona start going to the beach together–she wears a yellow two piece bathing suit (her favorite color), and he loves seeing her in it–but when he ogles a blonde in a bikini, Leona is hurt and offended–only to have Oliver point out that she was looking at a young black man whose physique puts Oliver’s to shame. The revelation of their mutual insecurity somehow brings them closer.
What’s going on between them started out as curiosity, but it’s evolving into something more–frankly, if they were both working at the school, the speed at which their relationship develops would be impossible (the entire story unfolds over maybe three weeks). Westlake has deliberately put them into a sort of speed-dating mode–so they can learn more about each other in a week than many couples do in years.
Wanting Oliver to learn more about the young people he’d be teaching–and about himself–Leona manipulates him into teaching some classes held at a local church, thrown together as an emergency measure by community groups and teachers, so Schuyler Colfax students who want to go on being educated don’t miss out too much during the strike.
He asks her what if they recognize him as the hated ‘Junior Abbott’–with much amusement, she tells him to wear sunglasses. He ends up organizing them to do a live reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus–because that’s one of the few things they have enough copies of to go around–the events of the play, and the enthused reaction of his students to it are, to say the least, unsettling for him–well, the Bard does speak to all generations. I feel this scene merits an extended quotation.
I lowered my eyes to the book. “Act one. Scene one,” I read aloud. “Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.”
Oh, for God’s sake.
Silence. Nobody said a word. I didn’t dare look up. I jut sat there and stared at that one sentence while a fog of paranoia crept over me on little cat feet. Or were those little cat feet not the fog?
“Oh, yeah!” somebody cried. “It’s me, I forgot.” He cleared his throat and began to read, and once again I will not attempt to reconstruct the dialect, but will stick with Shakespeare’s spelling:
FIRST CITIZEN: Before we proceed any further, hear me speak.
ALL: Speak! Speak! Lay it on us, Daddy! Tell it, man! Give us the word, baby!
I raised my head and looked at them, and gradually they settled down once more. My First Citizen gave me a pained look, as though to say that he and I were the only mature adults in the room. I nodded at him, and he went on.
FIRST CITIZEN: You are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish?
ALL: Resolv’d, Resolv’d!
ONE SMART ALECK: You bet your ass, baby!
It’s tough to glare through sunglasses–if the sun can’t, how can we expect people to? Nevertheless, I tried.
FIRST CITIZEN: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.
ALL: We know’t, we know’t.
SECOND CITIZEN: You mean Junior Abbott, don’t you, baby?
ALL: You know it, you know it!
I lowered my eyes to the book, I shielded my face with my hand.
FIRST CITIZEN (with gusto): Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is’t a verdict?
ALL: No more talking on’t! Let it be done! Away, away!
Away, away. Would I ever get to say exeunt omnes?
But he sticks with the class over the coming week or so–who fail to recognize him, and of course these are the students who chose to go to school when they didn’t have to, so really unlikely they’d have done him any harm–sound and fury, signifying nothing. But in spite of everything, he can’t help liking them. And they’re fine with him–not knowing who he is. But that can’t possibly last.
He comes home one day, and there’s a protest rally–banners and all–marching outside his house! And they’re all holding glasses of cold lemonade–where’d those come from? He goes inside, and finds his mother with the leader of the protest, Mrs. Letitia Quernik–squeezing lemons! Well, you can’t expect people to march in the blazing September sun without refreshment, right?
The situation he’s in keeps getting more and more insane, but he has to keep updating his opinions on it every other minute. Mrs. Quernik is maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer–neither is his mom–but they each have something to contribute to his understanding of what’s going on. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. And at the end of the day, people of similar temperaments understand each other, no matter how society tries to divide them.
Next, Leona drags him to a meeting at a small black church, where a variety of factions (including the small integrated activist group she’s a part of) are going to discuss strategy and objectives–and it quickly becomes clear the black community is far from monolithic on this issue–and very passionate about it. And like people of all races who are passionate but not necessarily well-informed, they fall prey to a con man–one Prescott Wade Sinclair (“Pres” for short, and I can’t believe a jazz fan like Westlake gave him the same nickname as Lester Young), the tall thin sardonically grinning fellow with the Lucifer-beard, who told Oliver’s home room school was out.
Playing on racial divisions, mocking anyone of either race who wants real dialogue, he quickly fixes things so that his group–which just wants social chaos, so, you know, the revolution can come–is in control of the process. Most of the people just want compromise, will settle for incremental change, but that always sounds so weak–whether you’re on the left or the right. It’s much more fun to be extreme, and Pres is having the time of his life. Leona is disgusted–but it’s starting to be noticed how close she and Oliver are becoming, and it’s compromising her position in the movement.
Things are now very serious between her and Oliver–who she starts calling “Matt”, because he’s always wished his name was Matthew–and one night they go out to the then-deserted beach, and make love. Actual sex scenes are rare in Westlake’s books that aren’t about sex (he usually cuts over to the post-coital scene), and this one has a lyric quality you’d almost associate with Hemingway–
There was no stopping this time, and no hurry. And no surprises. Only the slow rhythm of the surf to guide us, and everything else already familiar and known, as though this was where we had been for a thousand years and we’d only forgotten for one brief hour.
While we were still joined she whispered in my ear, “It’s so hard to trust you.”
“I love you,” I whispered, having no idea whether it was true or not, whether she could trust me or not, whether I could trust her or not, whether I could trust myself or not. “I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing else exists.”
She sighed, and her body relaxed into new softnesses, and I realized belatedly she’d been controlling herself against me, reining in, not wanting to let go and be vulnerable. And now she had, and my immediate fear of the responsibility she was thrusting on me was smothered in the luxuriousness of her unfettered self, and for a while we couldn’t hear the surf at all, and when at last we could hear it again, it was a lullaby.
And then it all starts to unravel. They both start getting threatening calls–from black men, there’s no Ku Klux Klan in Brooklyn, though an agitated Oliver snaps at one caller that he’ll sic the Klan on him–just looking for a way to hit back.
As the black community sees it, Oliver has trespassed where he is not welcome, and Leona is betraying her people. As Jacob Abbott’s son, him dating her is a bit too much like the young master having his sport. Never occurs to any of them them this affair might be serious–and honestly, neither of them is 100% sure it is, yet.
If he weren’t a symbol for every crappy thing that the establishment ever did to black people, and she weren’t a public spokesperson for the movement to give the community more control over how its children are educated, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Leona’s female roommates all think Oliver is okay–but that’s because they’ve met him. He’s going to learn now just how much it sucks when people prejudge you on the basis of things you can’t help. When your skin tells them all they think they need to know about you.
Then Oliver’s parents start to talk to him, and that’s much much worse–his mother seems to have no racial prejudices to speak of–she wants everybody to get along–but she’s upset that her new friend Letitia is angry about Oliver and Leona being together. She’s also worried her husband’s career will be ruined–a very real possibility.
His father, who in spite of their many differences, Oliver respects the hell out of–well, he’s a disappointment. A lot of us have experienced that kind of disappointment, haven’t we? Oliver finds out that even though his father genuinely wants to do right by the minority kids he’s responsible for, he believes he has to keep tight control over the school in order for it to receive major funding from a private foundation.
And he has very limited expectations of his pupils–Leona has it right again–the elder Abbott doesn’t believe black children are teachable. They aren’t a fire to be lit or a slate to be written upon–they’re a problem to be controlled. He makes a lot of very nasty sexual assumptions about Leona (never occurs to him his son might have been the pursuer), and you can imagine how well that goes over with Oliver. But there’s worse coming.
Oliver’s car is stripped and burned by black kids–he and Leona get into a fight with another group–and then Oliver comes home one night and finds a group of white kids trying to burn a cross on the lawn of his family home. The tension between the communities is getting out of control, and he and Leona have somehow ended up at the center of it.
Oliver shows up at Leona’s house and finds what I think in modern terms we’d call an ‘intervention’–a contingent of black people who know and work with Leona, bearing a ‘Dear Oliver’ note from her–she’s breaking it off. She’s been made to understand that anger over their relationship is making negotiations impossible–so she’s choosing the common good over what she personally wants. Oliver takes this the way any young man in love would take it. He refuses to believe she wrote the letter–but he can see that she did sign it.
He hangs around the house for the better part of a day, hoping she’ll come back–then he walks home through the South Romulus slums, wishing to hell he’d come across some Nation of Islam organizer handing out “White Man is the Devil” pamphlets, so he could start a fight. He just badly needs to strike out at somebody–but the enemy isn’t any one person, black or white. The enemy is group-thought. How do you fight that? He tells his parents it’s over, sees their relief–and then proceeds to get drunk, and stay drunk for some days.
As I’ve already mentioned, Oliver is the hero of this book, but a decidedly flawed one–his quest is for self-actualization, not social justice–and Westlake wants us to know that the poison of racism is very much alive in him. In his anger over being jilted, he calls Leona every name in the book inside his head–yes, including that one. He feels betrayed, even though he knows on some level she wasn’t being given any choice. He doesn’t want to hear any Humphrey Bogart speech from Casablanca. The problems of two little people mean a hell of a lot more than a hill of beans to him–as they should to everyone.
How did E.M. Forster put it–“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” But suppose your country is more than just some state structure–suppose it’s a group of people who have fought and bled and died for equal citizenship, over hundreds of years? How then, Mr. Forster?
Oliver sobers up, and goes to a meeting in midtown Manhattan with his father (who has been atypically considerate and downright apologetic to his son, who he can see is in mortal pain). The meeting is at one of those little surviving brownstone townhouses in an area full of big glass office towers, which invariably signify enormous wealth and power. They’re meeting with the men who have promised a big financial grant to Schuyler Colfax, and who have been wondering if their money should be invested elsewhere. Oliver is there with his father to reassure them that this unpleasantness is coming to an end.
Westlake’s deep-seated hostility and outright contempt for the very wealthy is on full display here. Oliver sees his father walking a fine line between begging for money and maintaining his self-respect. He’s little more than a trusted servant in this company–the actual servants are all black, of course. Phantoms, flitting in and out with trays of refreshments. They get no lines. Nobody worries about what they might overhear.
What we overhear from this assemblage of social pillars (only one of whom, Mr. Butler, is from the south) is basically warmed-over Thomas Carlyle. Westlake did not preface this novel with that lovely little bit of vintage racism from him just to offend people. Again, I feel a lengthy quotation is called for. This is an unusually clear political statement from a man who generally avoided them in his fiction. And I suspect few of his more conservative readers (or, for that matter, the liberal ones) have ever seen it.
Mr. Duncan, the corporation lawyer, said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I judge every man on the basis of his ability as a man, and I always have, and I always will. Many of these people have a great deal of natural ability, singers, for instance, athletes. I want to make it absolutely clear that for my part I do not believe in denying any man the right to fulfill his own abilities to the best of his, uh. But if any of these people prefer to stay in their own areas, I believe they have the right to decide that for themselves. I don’t want to push any man into any situation that he knows or believes himself not to be ready for.”
Mr. Whitney said, “It is a question of education, of course, education and diet. Members of minority groups aren’t inherently unable to compete on an equal basis, but they do have two strikes against them. Fourth-rate education, for one thing, the very problem we’re here to try to do something about. And diet. I don’t know if you gentlemen are aware of the neurological studies that have been made on the effect of low-protein diet in the formative years, but a great deal of the answer to the problem of minorities lies right there. And it is up to us, to the affluent, to make it possible for these people, or if not this generation then at least the next generation, to upgrade themselves to the point where they can participate, where they can be accepted on equal terms. You might say it’s the affluent man’s burden, and I’m sure we all shoulder it gladly.”
General Winterhilff said, “Of course we do. And our experience in the military is that these people can be trained, they can even be placed in positions of responsibility. Give a man the proper incentive, don’t push him along too fast, and he won’t let you down. And we didn’t do it by bringing them all along to the Officers’ Club, I assure you. I shudder to think what that would have done for morale on both sides.”
“My point exactly,” Mr. Butler said softly. “In any social situation where one side is uncomfortable and feels out of place, you can usually be sure the other side is just as troubled.”
“I’ve certainly seen that to be true,” Mr. Duncan said. He wore an earnest face as though he’d just bought it at Lord & Taylor. “Now, the golf club I belong to in Maryland integrated recently, and I want to make it perfectly clear I am absolutely in favor of integration in principle, but our colored member is not at all comfortable at that club, and everyone knows it. I suppose he feels he has to prove a point, and I respect his position, but there are times when it seems to me he’s putting himself to a great deal of trouble for very little gain.” He chuckled, not as though anything were funny but as though some counting machine in his head had told him it was time to chuckle now, and said “With the condition of the greens the last few years, I’ve been expecting members to be fighting their way out, not in.”
Mr. Butler said, “Fred, that’s exactly the point. That man isn’t gaining anything, and deep down inside he knows it, but he feels he has to make a gesture. Too many of these people have been convinced they’re somehow missing something by not being allowed on those shaggy greens of yours–” everybody smiled, in comradely fashion–“and the result is embarrassment and inconvenience for everyone. But I believe it’s a phase, merely a phase, and it will pass away. In fact, it’s already started to pass, these people are beginning to realize they’re much more comfortable with their own kind. As in this current school controversy, for instance.”
Then a servant shows up with the coffee, and this spirited exchange of identical views subsides. And I can’t help but think similar exchanges are going on in similar townhouses, even as I type this. Maybe they’ve gotten a bit more well-encoded. Of course, now they’re probably talking about that poor well-intentioned man in the White House. And perhaps the sorry state of the gardens there.
So it all goes well enough, and the money for the school seems assured, and Oliver, who has been pretty quiet up to now, decides to tell a really disgusting racist joke. Something about Rastus and the watermelon–he doesn’t want to go into details with us readers about it. He says it’s some gremlin inside of him–some imp of the perverse that won’t leave him alone. The money men all laugh politely, but uncomfortably–you don’t say those things out loud anymore, doesn’t this young fellow realize that? His father asks him afterward why he told the joke–Oliver says “I thought it was funny.”
So with Oliver and Leona broken up, the factions work out a compromise (Oliver can go on teaching at Schuyler Colfax, though he has no intention of actually doing so, because he’s decided he’s not a teacher after all), and the community activists schedule a big meeting at a grand old movie palace in some part of Brooklyn white people just do not go–but Oliver manages to get himself there, because this Candide has decided it’s time to become David Copperfield (no, not the one in Vegas), and be the hero of his own story. Though the only one he really wants to be a hero to is Leona. Who he knows will be at the meeting.
He gets up on stage, and he tells the sea of astonished black faces that they were right to fight for their children, that nobody is going to fix the problems in their schools but them, but they’re going about it the wrong way–that the path to a better future doesn’t lie in answering hate with more hate. Honestly, it’s a good speech, but it does feel a bit like he’s talking to the wrong people. Not likely anybody there slashed his tires, or made obscene phone calls, or tried to beat him up.
But again, the only one he’s really talking to is Leona–she’s the only person, black or white, who is real to him in that moment, and he’s calling out to her, telling her that she has to be true to herself, and to what he and she have found together, and it’s all very Matthew Arnold. And she answers him. And if you want to know how, read the book.
This is the longest novel Westlake had published up to this point, and the most complicated. It’s been a struggle to review it, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. The thing is, it’s an easy book to misunderstand. I wish I could have found some reviews of it written by black people–it seems to have mainly vanished into the racial foment of the late 60’s/early 70’s with nary a ripple. I think most people didn’t know what to make of it.
It was more warmly received overseas, I think–there was a brief but glowing notice in the Times Literary Supplement. The reviewer (anonymous, as were all the TLS reviewers back then) said “You would hardly think it possible at this stage of the game that an American could write a funny and intelligent and fundamentally loving novel with black-white strife as its background.” He (or she) seemed confused as to why this ‘novelist of romantico-sociological bent’ (whatever that means) was being put forth as a writer of thrillers. TLS didn’t review much crime fiction back then, I guess.
It got a much longer and very negative review in the New York Times (not written by Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s champion there), which so badly misses the point, it’s almost laughable–the reviewer–whose name is not Bibble, but one feels somehow it ought to be–indignantly asks how Westlake could possibly not know about what happened in the Brownsville public schools just recently, somehow failing to grasp that the novel is a direct commentary on that battle that divided so many well-intentioned people from each other. Westlake was saying everybody was to blame there, because they were too busy waving their goddam banners to listen to each other, give each other at least some benefit of the doubt.
And in the process of letting themselves be divided, by the likes of the cynical Preston Wade Sinclair (whose comeuppance is brief but satisfying), they were only making themselves perpetual victims to the people with real power–the Duncans, Whitneys, Winterhilffs, and Butlers. As we all still are, to some extent. To a very great extent, actually.
There’s genuine respect in the novel for those Westlake considers the true activists, black and white–the ones who are trying to build something, not just destroy–the ones who bridge the gaps, learn to understand each other, work together. Leona is one of them, and even though she’s somewhat giving way to Oliver’s more individualistic philosophy, she doesn’t surrender her principles at the end, doesn’t abandon her people–she’s just going to take a break, come down off her pedestal. She reclaims her sense of self, her right to choose who she loves, a choice without which freedom and equality are quite quite meaningless.
And Oliver, the most serious of the Westlake Nephews, conquers his fears of adulthood and commitment, even as he abandons the life plans his father had made for him. Because you’re only real when you’re being absolutely yourself. And being real is all there really is, isn’t it? The Velveteen Rabbit would certainly say so. Eh, google it.
Obviously the book in its entirety doesn’t begin to address the black experience, the undeniable facts that made black activism in America necessary then, as it is necessary today. But there were an awful lot of other books coming out on this subject–Westlake hardly had to say it all himself. He wasn’t equipped for that, and he knew it. But you can’t tell me Westlake, a lifelong jazz buff (ie, a worshipper at the altar of African American genius), wasn’t reading the black authors of that general time period–Invisible Man is the supreme novel of identity–I don’t just mean black identity–Westlake must have devoured it hungrily, and understood its points perfectly. And had a few points of his own to make.
Not long after Westlake finished this book, Chester Himes, a writer Westlake admired very much, started work on the abortive and posthumously published Plan B, the last of his Harlem Detective novels–in which (spoiler alert) he vividly imagines the race war everybody thought was coming back then, and in the process kills off his two greatest creations, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, those great intercessors between black and white America, in a sort of despairing gesture–what hope is there for America, for humanity? We’ll never work this shit out. Just too far gone to care.
And his despair was understandable–we still feel it, sometimes. But it was wrong. He knew that it was. That, I think, is why he never published the book in his lifetime. And of course, he lived most of his life as a writer in a loving if troubled relationship with a white woman–in Europe. Safely away from the fray. Cultivating his own garden, like Candide. And suffering from survivor’s guilt.
My favorite work about racial turmoil from this period was written by somebody who really didn’t have a tribe of his own–the novel Chien Blanc (White Dog), from Romain Gary. In that deeply painful (and only partly factual) account of his and his wife Jean Seberg’s experiences with a German Shepherd conditioned to attack black people on sight, this supremely alienated French Jewish writer (who wasn’t really French, or Jewish, and often didn’t even seem to want to be human), saw us Yanks with objective clarity, like Tocqueville before him–he said the main thing about us is that we can’t ever leave things alone.
We have an image of how we’re supposed to be, an ideal we need to live up to, and no matter how racist we undoubtedly are at times, we simply can’t accept that’s how it will always be. We keep fighting the conflict, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, trying to resolve it. In a time where many thought America would tear itself apart, Gary said we’d find some way to fix it, seek some way out of a shared nightmare. On November 4th 2008, we proved him right–not for the first time, or the last. E. Pluribus Unum. Damn straight.
But see, Gary also made it very clear that the toxins of race hatred linger in our collective bloodstreams, passed from one generation to the next. George Orwell would agree, and might add that the only way to fight the smelly little bigotries vying for your souls is to recognize them for what they are. To confess to their existence, and allow for them, because they only get more dangerous when you pretend they aren’t there–that it’s just those other people who have a problem.
Nobody ever thinks of himself as a racist–early in the book, Oliver talks to a policeman guarding the school, who talks quite soberly about how black people have thicker skulls than white people–that’s why they’re a bit less smart, but can take a much harder crack on the head. He says he’s got nothing against the colored. And neither did the policemen who choked Eric Garner to death, and left him to die in a public sidewalk, for selling loose cigarettes.
And man, this was a long review–my longest yet–took me three weeks to finish, and I broke my self-imposed rule over never letting a single post go over 6,000 words (the long quotes really killed me here), and that’s not including Part 1. But all in a worthy cause.
And now I really feel the need for something less worthy, more frivolous. What would you say to two Grofield novels in a row? Well as it happens, that’s what’s up next in the review queue. Though I should mention there’s a lot of black people in the second book, one of whom Grofield ends up in bed with, but he ends up in bed with everybody, sooner or later. So, having set the scene, exeunt omnes.