Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Visiting "Another Country"

Given the type of work I do (which I am loath to name, at least here) I have ample time to read. Lest you should worry about me slacking off, the job entails alot of sitting and staring at walls; since sitting and staring at walls tends to make me brood on how much I hate my job, life, and so on, I decided -- for my own sanity -- to enliven the drudgery with a bit of reading.

I've read a great many books in this manner, and generally enjoyed them all, whether they be classic (Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes) or obscure (Clea's Moon, by Edward Wright), hilariously funny (Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen), wistful (Bethel Merriday, by Sinclair Lewis), or sheer poetry (Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow).

What I never expected was to read a book that would change my life, so I guess I owe my job at least that much. Yet somehow even having to give my job that tiny, grudging bit of respect makes me hate it all the more. It's like getting a really cool Secret Santa present from a first-class a-hole: it doesn't make up for all the crap he's given you, just reminds you that he could be nice and isn't.

But I digress...

The book is called -- as you may have already guessed -- "Another Country", and it was written by James Baldwin. It's dated 1961, and if you, like most people, are harbouring the idea (promulgated by most conservatives) that the majority of the world's ills are modern in nature, think again. Baldwin's portrait is of a 1961 that seems more relevant today than most books being written tomorrow. In fact, I found myself forgetting its era entirely, until some slang would rear its groovy head and remind me.

The optimist in me feels that the misogyny and racism of 45 years ago is softer nowadays, and so the book preserves, as in amber, how harsh people must have once been. Of course, the pessimist in me usually bitch slaps the optimist before this kind of delusion gets too out of hand. Misogyny and racism are alive and well, they're just being more vehemently denied now is all. Oddly, there is almost no homophobia, except the imaginary kind, which today would be detectable only by the politically correct. I wish my life had as little homophobia as "Another Country" does.

At times it had me wondering about the internal battles Baldwin must have fought. As a black man (and a gay man) he would have had ample cause to hate whites (and to distrust straights). Yet his treatment of white guilt is as sensitive as his black characters are insensitive towards it. Ironically, the white characters are all sincerely grappling with their own racism, while the black characters seem to revel in the self-righteousness of theirs. In terms of the civil rights movement, the whites are all about Dr. King and the blacks are pure Malcolm X. Whether his depiction of this makes the author a wizard of empathy or a sell-out is a matter for debate.

While Baldwin is a master of dialogue, his characters are not; how they say what they say is peerless, but what they don't say speaks louder than what they do. Whenever it seems that understanding is about to erupt, someone gets mad, and the moment is lost. It's hard to believe that a writer this good would do a thing like that accidentally. That central human folly -- the mistaken belief that everyone feels just the same as you do about everything -- is present on every page, in every character.

Rufus, a young black man, opens the book. The whole of the narrative is hung on him, and he bears it, though it is a burden. It's difficult to discuss the plot without divulging, so I won't. Suffice it to say, it's not very often a thing comes along that is so perfect I won't deign to offer even one spoiler. It deserves to be enjoyed whole, sipped and gulped, whispered and shouted, read aloud and savoured in whatever rich voice your mind can conjure for its narrator, who never judges but merely presides.

Sometimes a book falls into your lap that mirrors what is happening in your life, and that's probably why "Another Country" is still haunting me. Though surely anyone could catch the wisdom that leaps from every page I didn't need to; its themes, its very message of it, leapt onto me and held on like brambles.

Of course, in an age of minimalist prose there is no treat like sitting down to a couple of hundred pages of poetry. Baldwin's descriptions of a vicious, dirty city are beautiful; he evokes beautiful people at their ugliest. White or black, rich or poor, gay or straight or anywhere in between, he transcends the usual soap operatic treatment of anyone. This is no mean feat, as any writer will tell you.

Clearly it was time for me to read a book about relationships -- all kinds, not just romantic -- and "Another Country" has much to say about relationships and inter-relationships. It's always a good time to read about race, especially if it brings one to a new level of understanding. The fact that it didn't say what I wanted it to say is, on balance, a good thing. As a writer I'm selfish, and look forward to one day putting those feelings of mine to paper.

Until then, I find myself awaiting the next paperback surprise...
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