Friday, February 12, 2010

ZZ Packer: The Next James Baldwin?

James Baldwin
Toni Morrison
Richard Wright

The above are three great American writers that just about all of us have read or are familiar with. But what about ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones and Colson Whitehead?

This question arose as I thought about African-American History Month, which is celebrated in February. Baldwin, Morrison and Wright are staples of African-American literature displays, and deservedly so. But as I selected books by African-American fiction writers to display along the side of our fiction collection, I decided to pair, as much as possible, one of the greats of the previous century, such as Baldwin, with greats and potential future greats of this century, such as ZZ Packer.

ZZ Packer has only published one book so far, but oh, what a book! (If you don't trust me, trust the late John Updike, who selected it for the Today Show Book Club.) Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a masterful and funny short story collection that features engaging but often isolated characters, several of them young women struggling with issues of identity. In "Brownies," some members of an African-American Brownie troop summering at Camp Crescendo determine "to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909," when one of its members uses the N-word. "We'd seen them from afar," says the narrator, a quiet girl always on the periphery nicknamed Snot. "Never within their orbit enough to see whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV--ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money." Their anger and intentions are thwarted, however, when they make a startling discovery about the girls in the white troop. Other stories feature a mistrustful Yale freshman who behaves less than compassionately when her sole friend comes out of the closet, and a repressed, cross-eyed nurse who tries to bring the word of God to her patients.

Colson Whitehead has been on my to-read list since I heard the charismatic MacArthur "genius award" recipient read from his impressionistic nonfiction book about New York City, The Colossus of New York, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. But he's best known for his novels, the most wildly inventive of which are The Intuitionist and John Henry Days. Praised as "ingenius and starkly original" by The New York Times Book Review, The Intuitionist stars one Lila Mae Watson, the first African-American woman graduate of the "Institute of Vertical Transport," and an elevator inspector who uses intuition rather than empirical methods to determine an elevator's safety. When one of the elevators she inspected fails, she goes on a sort of underground odyssey. Kirkus Reviews characterized the books as "equally effective as detective story and philosophical novel. Ralph Ellison would be proud."

If you follow awards, you may have heard of Edward P. Jones, whose first novel, The Known World, won the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and more. The Known World is an expansive and sometimes challenging book with many characters and multiple story threads, some fascinating and some, to this reader, anyway, digressive and frustrating. (I admit I prefer his short story collection, All Aunt Hagar's Children, set in Washington, D.C.) But the novel nevertheless compels with its rich characterization and often exquisite sentences. Two of the main characters are Henry Townsend, who was born into slavery and whose freedom was purchased by his parents, and his wife Caldonia, both of whom ultimately own slaves themselves (a rare but historically accurate occurrence). It was sentences like this, in which Henry's father, Augustus, ponders his son's future, that kept me reading:

"Augustus Townsend would have preferred that his son have nothing to do with the past, aside from visiting his slave friends at the Robbins plantation, and he certainly would have preferred he have nothing to do with the white man who had once owned him. But Mildred made him see that the bigger Henry could make the world he lived in, the freer he would be."

Which African-American writers have expanded your world, inspired you with their sentences, or, since this is African American History month, enhanced your understanding of our nation's history?


Anonymous said...

Don't forget Victor LaValle. His newest book, "Big Machine" got a lot of hype I thought was actually deserved. He was on a recent cover of Publishers Weekly.

Laura A. said...

Thank you for recommending LaValle! I just googled him, and the performer Mos Def characterizes him as "Gabriel Garcia Marquez mixed with Edgar Allen Poe"--an intriguing combination!

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