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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

The Struggles of a Black Everyman of the 1950s : DIRTY BIRD BLUES by Clarence Major; Mercury House; $22.95, 279 pages

July 29, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hero of this novel about African American life in the Midwest in the early 1950s is Manfred Banks, a blues musician and blue-collar worker. Friends and relatives call him Fred. Author Clarence Major's nickname for him, though, is Man--a sign that Banks is intended to be an exemplary figure, a black Everyman.

The novel opens, literally, with a bang. Banks, drunk on Dirty Bird (Old Crow whiskey), is being shot by his wife's lover. His chest riddled with shotgun pellets fired through the bedroom window he has been trying to enter, Banks climbs back down his rival's fire escape and staggers to a hospital.

En route, two significant things happen:

He meets a woman who has been beaten by her husband and persuades her to enter the hospital with him. This shows his kinder side: It also points to his efforts to be different from his father, a wife-beater and drunk who was embittered by the same racism that dogs every step in Banks' own life.

And even now, at one of his lowest points, Banks keeps on making music. "He was suddenly thinking about his '63rd Street Blues' song. Made up that summer. . . . How'd it go? In rhythm to his walking--Up and down the main drag, the dope man hustles his bag. . . . Got to boogie. Got to boogie hard. . . ."

Released from the hospital with painful but superficial wounds, Banks reflects on what music means to him, for better or worse:

"Singing was his way of talking out this furious, crazy thing in him that made him glide, leap, holler, and scream as if over treetops without even moving. But it made him sound like a bad nigger to white folks. He knew that. Mercy, mercy. And it made colored folks worry about him or laugh at him. Double mercy. It was why his wife left him."

This is Major's seventh novel, following "My Amputations," (Fiction Collective: New York, 1986), "Such Was the Season" (Mercury House: San Francisco, 1987) and "Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar" (Sun & Moon Press, 1988). He has also published nine books of poetry, anthologies of other black writers' works and the "Dictionary of Afro-American Slang" (New York International Publishers, 1970).

Language is central to "Dirty Bird Blues"--how it echoes from the folk traditions Banks brought north from Georgia, how it bubbles up from the joys and sorrows of his own life, how African American speech continues to shape the majority dialect in ways today's rappers have demonstrated all over again.

Rhymes, proverbs, jokes and scraps of songs spill through Banks' mind as he moves from Chicago to Omaha and works as a janitor and a welder in a steel plant. He performs in a nightclub, building a local reputation but earning only pocket money. His wife, Cleo, gives him a second chance, arriving on the train in a Salvation Army dress with their baby daughter, Karina.

But pressures inside and outside Banks conspire to upset his newfound harmony. Work is exhausting and demanding. His friend, Solly Thigpen, a gifted guitarist but a heavy drinker and womanizer, follows him to Omaha. Solly's influence undermines that of the strong-minded, churchgoing Cleo. A supervisor, upset at seeing Banks in a car--however innocently--with a white woman, hazes him unmercifully until Banks punches him and is fired.

Major excels at descriptions of manual labor--which at least was available in the 1950s for men without diplomas--and of the hard-pressed cohesiveness of the black community before civil rights laws but also before crack cocaine.

The central story, though, is a familiar one. Its hero--did the author intend to go this far?--is so representative as to seem almost generic. Banks has to learn which of his problems are caused by an unjust society and which are his own fault. He has to reconcile his artistic yearnings with the responsibilities of family life. Oddly enough, creativity isn't part of his struggle, as it is for most artists. Writing songs or singing them, making words "holler and scream," he is both prolific and confident--the Man indeed.

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