At Baldwin is so determined to explode
At its best, James Baldwin’s fiction is lyrical, intense, poetic, outrageous, improvisatory, brutal, and transcendent. The first time I read his short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” I was sitting in one of those massive chain bookstores, drinking coffee and trying to block out the pabulum coming from the Muzak. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly found myself choking back tears. The last three pages of “Sonny’s Blues” are as good as it gets: Sonny breaks into a blistering piano solo, finally finding a voice for his repressed pain. Baldwin follows suit capturing the rhythms, the longing, the give and take of the best jazz in some of the most stunning prose I’ve encountered.
Unfortunately, Another Country is not Baldwin at his best. In fact, it’s possibly the most frustrating novel I’ve ever read. Here, Baldwin is so determined to explode the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality and judging by the variety of sexual relationships on display here, he must have plotted those intersections on graph paper before sitting down to write that he makes a fatal mistake: instead of being particularly insightful or even shocking, Another Country is preachy, sentimental, and, worst of all, boring.
Rufus Scott is a young black man who makes his living playing drums in Harlem jazz clubs. When we first meet Rufus, he is wandering the streets, suffering from guilt over his treatment of Leona, a woman we later meet through flashbacks. Leona’s and Rufus’s relationship is based on a shared self-loathing: he feels unworthy of the love of a white woman; she has known only brutal relationships, having come to New York after escaping from an abusive marriage in the South. Rufus’s brutality eventually sends her to an asylum, an event that plagues Rufus, leading him to jump from the George Washington bridge at the end of chapter one. The remainder of the novel charts the effects of Rufus’s suicide on the lives of those closest to him.
The most interesting relationship is between Ida, Rufus’s younger sister, and Vivaldo, his best friend. Both are struggling artists: she a singer, he a novelist. In Baldwin’s hands, they become a platform for long discourses on the legacies of racism. Before meeting Ida, Vivaldo has known black women only as sexual objects the cheap whores he frequented in Harlem. Ida has likewise known white men only as victimizers the men who leered at her and who broke her brother’s spirit. At moments, Vivaldo and Ida come alive in Baldwin’s prose. The flashback to their first meeting, for instance, is handled gracefully. But too often they act as little more than mouthpieces, uttering sappy lines like, “How’s one going to get through it all? How can you live if you can’t love? And how can you live if you do?” Baldwin wisely leaves their relationship in limbo at the end of the novel, offering some hope for reconciliation between the races, but promising nothing.
Richard and Cass are another interesting couple. Married with children, they struggle to maintain their “traditional” roles amidst the sexual and social tumult (not to mention the heavy drinking) that surrounds them. Richard is also a novelist, but has “sold out,” making him a failure in his wife’s eyes. She escapes to an affair with Eric, an actor friend who has recently returned from Paris, but it brings her little comfort. “I’m beginning to think,” she gushes, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet you drink a little of it every day.” It’s perhaps in this relationship that Baldwin does the most moralizing. Near the very end of the novel he finally enters Richard’s point of view, giving voice to the character who, until this point, had been little more than a personification of failed artistic ambition. Richard’s pain, however, rings more true than that of others in the novel because Baldwin allows readers to experience it in the moment, instead of subjecting us to endless discussions of that pain.
My frustration with this novel is fueled largely by its obvious, unrealized potential. Baldwin populates Another Country with artists of all sorts and provides them with fabulously romanticized lives in Greenwich Village and Paris. He sets out to deliberately create another “lost generation,” but never seems able to elevate his characters above the prescribed roles they play.