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Tales From an Old Black Neighborhood : THE AVENUE, CLAYTON CITY by C. Eric Lincoln (William Morrow: $17.95; 320 pp.)

May 29, 1988|David Bradley | Bradley is the author of "The Chaneysville Incident" (Avon) and other works

Clayton City, is one of those mythic towns that, in the imaginations of fiction writers, become stages for powerful human dramas of murder and revenge, of longstanding passion, and long-festering secrets. The Avenue is one of those symbolic streets which, in the hands of fiction writers, can unite a host of characters, a multitude of story lines. But the writer in the case of "The Avenue, Clayton City," is C. Eric Lincoln, who, in 1961, brought the Nation of Islam to the attention of America--indeed, who invented the term "Black Muslims"--and whose bibliography, while impressive (nineteen titles) includes no other fiction. The result is a very mixed blessing.

Billed as a novel, "The Avenue, Clayton City," begins like a good one. In the opening chapter, "Under the Streetlight," we meet Ben (Guts) Gallimore, owner of the Blue Flame Cafe, the only black restaurant in segregated Clayton City in the days just before World War II. Guts, true to his name a prodigious purveyor of down-home cooking, is a man with a dream: A senior deacon in the Burning Bush Baptist Church, "Over the years, he had continued to wait patiently for the call from the Lord which would allow him to swap his greasy apron and the Blue Flame for a gub-back coat and a little church with a steeple on top . . . Any day now he could go home and go to bed one night a businessman, and wake up the next morning Rev. Ben T. Gallimore."

We start home with Guts after closing down the Blue Flame, but leave him when he encounters a crowd of corner boys, who are gathered beneath a street light to play the dozens. We hang with them a while, listening to the ribald banter ("Good night, Guts. Don't let your meat loaf, your gravy might curdle.") and then discover that listening with us, from his office across the street is Dr. Walter Pickney Tait.

Shifting to Tait's consciousness, we learn about Clayton City--"a metropolis not burdened with a history of great significance or with a future of probable consequences for the world beyond its borders"--and its symbolic geography. The Avenue, the umbilical connecting the white and black sections, is to Tait "a depressing ridiculous strip of graveled road with sidewalks! No curbs, no gutters, no pavement and bordered by ditches three feet deep and full of weeds . . . But to most of the colored people of Clayton The Avenue was their most important symbol of status and elevation." The more prosperous blacks--including Tait live near its upper end.

Tait himself is man with a shaded past--he "just sort of materialized, nobody was paying much attention" and there is much speculation about the validity of his degree and the parentage of his reclusive, alcoholic half-white wife--and a troubled present. His 18-year-old daughter, Makeda is secretly pregnant, and it is more than hinted that when the news spreads beyond Tait and Makeda there will be dire and far-reaching consequences. Tait's trouble seems to be that his role requires that he expose the secret himself: "He was the doctor, real or imaginary, and sooner or later he would need to take up his scalpel and expose something malignant, malodorous and unclean."

In the second chapter, "House Calls," we follow Tait as he pursues his morning rounds, meeting fascinating characters. There's 87-year-old Sis' Inis Wells, who "although she had not specific ailments she could point to . . . coveted the attention 'doctor' gave her, and apparently thrived on it" along with doses of moonshine-spiked tea. " 'My doctor done told me I'm gwine prob' live forever,' she confided to the neighbors, 'but I'm gwine fool him one of these days. I aims to live a heap longer'n that!' "

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