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Book Review : Wideman's 'Reuben': Poetic Look at Pain of Being Black

November 11, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Reuben by John Edgar Wideman. (Henry Holt: $16.95; 215 pages.)

Reuben is shriveled and kind, a dwarfish man who lives in a broken-down trailer in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh and helps the residents with their legal problems. Wally is young and successful, a former basketball star who travels around the country recruiting black players for his university.

They are the poles of John Edgar Wideman's "Reuben." It is a stirring and magical novel, written in a torrent of language that submerges it from time to time, but never for very long. It makes a profound moral point using characters whose gritty presence is only the picture-frame for an embattled dream-portrait. You could go to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf to find an equivalent for Wideman's power to render the tangible substance of his personages through their thoughts and fantasies.

His neighbors come to Reuben when they run head-on into the law or, more frequently, when they amble into it at an oblique angle. Charging next to nothing, he gives every problem his entire energy. He is not, in fact, a real lawyer but he has made it his mission to know more about getting things done at the courthouse and at the lawyer's hangout next door than most of the profession. It is, as we shall see, a moral mission.

One of his clients is Kwansa, a bar girl struggling to support herself and her illegitimate child, Cudjoe. The father, Waddell, had thrown her out. Now he has taken Cudjoe, her reason for being and the only reality among the grim hallucinations of her street life. Or, as Wideman puts it:

"Her son had saved her. He was her mirror, she could find herself in his eyes, laugh because he laughed, cry when he cried. Touching him, touch lived again. When he slept she could dream."

Corruption Scandal

Reuben will eventually get Cudjoe back. Meanwhile, Wally visits him. For help, ostensibly, because he suspects he will be the scapegoat in a corruption scandal about to break at the university's big-spending athletics department. In fact, Wally has something more serious on his mind: a murder that he may or may not have committed.

Wideman is not interested in pinning down the reality of the act, any more than he cares to spell out to the reader that the low-life Waddell and the high-flying Wally are the same man. He is interested in exploring a fictional, even a poetic answer to a question: What is to be done with the pain of being black?

The exploration is so rich and so suggestive that by the time the book ends--bloodily, garishly and in part victoriously--the reader may translate the question into: What is to be done with the pain of being? Not because Wideman is anything but vivid and specific in writing about his black characters and the sight, flavor and oppressiveness of their world, but because the reader will become these characters and live in this world.

Reuben, the near-dwarf ("The pitiful thing Reuben wasn't was also what he almost was. Which made you careful.") lives a life of near-saintly devotedness. He dresses foppishly, he maneuvers and schemes; but all of it serves to wrest from society the same relief for his penniless clients that rich people pay huge lawyer's fees to obtain. It is tedious and humiliating. And what transforms Reuben for us are the inner visions with which he sustains himself.

Reuben's legend teaches him that the answer to pain is not hatred. His abnegation in serving his wretched neighbors is his form of revenge upon the world of privilege. He is a quiet insurrectionist, a child of light.

Reaching for Absolution

The child of darkness is Wally. He looks to Reuben, a father-figure of sorts, for a kind of absolution. He has long, painful, sometimes hostile dialogues with him. Some of these take place only in his own mind; he is too tormented to reveal much. Walley's own memory of oppression is trivial compared to Reuben's, although Wideman makes his anguish entirely believable. As an athletic star, he was treated with favor at his mostly white college; he was never treated as human. Mixed meant he was supposed to adjust to a white world. "Whose blood was spozed to change?" he demands.

His anger never leaves him. Over and over, he tells a story about killing a white stranger in an empty washroom, as an abstract act of revenge. The story keeps changing; sometimes it is something told to him by a fellow-passenger on an airplane, a man whose mother was driven insane by a Ku Klux Klan gang. The killing is related with cold and terrifying detail; we never know whether it is real.

What we do know, what Wideman is telling us through Reuben, who pities Wally but cannot absolve him, is that the anger of the black condition--and perhaps the human condition--must be transformed or it will destroy the one who bears it. Love does not mean submission. It can mean revolution--I get an image of Ho Chi Minh out of Reuben's wizened, goateed features--and it can mean Reuben's plodding, daily drudgery while dreaming of the court of Queen Hatsheput.

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