Thursday, November 16, 2006

Another Country Part One (Rufus)

Every now and then you meet a book and think oh, I'm going to remember this one. Song of Solomon, as much as I enjoyed it, was not one of those books. It's actually been awhile since I've gotten that premonition reading a book, but James Baldwin's Another Country has so far announced itself to be one for the memory bank. I say so far, because I'm not done with it. I'm going to try to write a post about it every time I finish a section of the book.

But before we get that, let's talk about the cover of the book. Vintage International consistently has some of the best cover art in the business (their only real US rival is, as far as I'm concerned New York Review of Books). Another Country is no exception. Just look at it. At first glance, a white man is smiling and possibly touching his lips to a black woman who reaches to hold him. About them is empty blackness. Look closer. His shirt is covered in blood. The look on her face is despair. Is she reaching for the wound or to comfort him? Is it his blood? Above them, in the empty black space, a tree and a chimney grow, only visible when light reflects off the cover of the book.

There is no better way to sum up the experience of reading this emotionally brutal, overwhelmingly despair-filled book about interracial romance. There's nothing easy about this book except for the easy pleasures of Baldwin's prose:

There's thousands of people, Bessie now sang, ain't got no place to go, and for the first time Rufus began to hear, in the severely understatedmonotony of this blues, something whihc spoke to his troubled mind. The piano bore the singer witness, stoic and ironic. Now that Rufus himself and no place to go-- 'cause my house fell down and I can't live there no mo' sang Bessie-- he heard the line and the tone of the singer, and he wondered how others had moved beyong the emptiness and horror which faced him now.

Spoiler's Ahead

The first part of the book, spanning roughly ninety pages, tells the story of Rufus, a black jazz drummer in New York City. Rufus has just reappeared in his own life, having vanished off the map for a few months. We never fully learn what happened in the months while his friends thought he had disappeared, it's never fleshed out. What we do learn in the ninety pages chronicling Rufus' last night on Earth before throwing himself off the "bridge named for the father of the country" is that he was involved in some kind of fatally intense affair with a white woman named Leona. As Rufus struggles (and fails) to reconnect with his life, we delve into various points in his romance with Leona-- the night he met her in a bar, the night his best friend Vivaldo (also white) had to rescue Leona from Rufus' physical abuse. We learn about Leona's kid back south whom she can't see. We learn about her and Rufus' heavy drinking. We learn about how the affair eventually drove her to Bellvue, and then to an asylum in the South, where Rufus can't see her, since they aren't related and have no kids together.

We also meet along the way Rufus' circle of friends, all of whom (it bears noticing) are white. The ever-tolerant Vivaldo, who comes to Rufus' aid even when there's potential murder in the air. Vivaldo's loathsome on-again-off-again girlfriend Jane. Vivaldo's English teacher Richard and his wife, Cass. And we get a sense of the seedier world of Greenwich Village and Harlem in the sixties, a world of drugs, jazz, drinking and sex.

What Baldwin is able to do that few authors can is mix the political and the personal, and find the intersecitonality between race, class, gender and sexuality. All of it is there in every encounter, from the time Rufus insults Jane in an all-white blue collar bar and she says (voice raised) Are you threatening me? just to show her power over him, to Rufus' (so far unexplained) possible sexual encounters with Eric, a gay friend now living in Paris:
Those cufflinks [that Eric gave him] were now in Harlem And when Eric was gone, Rufus forgot their battles and the unspeakable physical awkwardness, and the ways in which he had made Eric pay for such pleasure as Eric gave, or got. He remembered only that Eric had loved him; as he now remembered that Leona had loved him. He had despised Eric's manhood by treating him as a woman, by telling him how inferior he was to a woman, by treating him as nothing more than a hideous sexual deformity. But Leona had not been a deformity. And he had used against her the very epithets he had used against Eric, and in the very same way, with the same roaring in his head and the same intolerable pressure in his chest.

If all of this sounds a bit histrionic... well... it is. But the world is not a deadpan place, as much as we might like it to be. The world is filled with high drama and chaos, with violence emotional and physical. Our contemporary response to it is one of alienation, of deadpan. On our stages, in our films, our literature, the hip way to deal with the world is to act like it doesn't affect you. Baldwin refuses to do this, and it's a refreshingly in-the-world approach to human relating. The world of human relationships is in that above paragraph- and in this book. Here is gender, sexuality and race, not to mention class (Eric has enough money to give a man he loves cufflinks) all at once. Rufus is no sympathetic victim-- his rage at the world leads him to destroy everything he loves and (finally) himself. He can't stand the way people look at him and Leona on the street, and takes it out on her with his fists. The world crushes him and, not having any better response, he self-destructs.

One of the boldest gestures here is to center the entire first part of the novel around a character who offs himself. Rufus won't be returning in the present-day narrative of the book, and having started the second part, it continues with the other characters (Rufus' sister Ida, Richard, Cass and Vivaldo, with a cameo from Jane) trying to deal with Rufus' death. We'll see how well Baldwin continues to make this all pay off in the next installment.


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