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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Black History: A River Runs Through It : NAMING THE NEW WORLD, by Calvin Baker (Wyatt/St. Martin's; $18.95, 119 pages)

March 24, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Youth and ambition go together--as do, usually, ambition and size. "Naming the New World," the first novel by 24-year-old Calvin Baker, is certainly ambitious, dealing with no less than 200 years of African American history. Yet it does so in a mere 119 pages, the length of a novella.

Baker compresses his material in a way that will be familiar to anyone whose youth included disco dancing. Remember strobe lights? They illuminated the dancers in brief, spaced flashes. Continuous movement appeared disconnected, jerky, while it was hard to tell whether somebody standing still wasn't, in fact, in jiggling motion.

Like a strobe, Baker's novel lights up the darkness of slavery and its aftermath for fleeting moments, widely separated in time. There aren't enough of these moments to tell the story as a full novel would, but they suggest a story, however jerkily; and their very brevity makes them seem symbolic, implying more than Baker tells us, much as the frozen image of a dancer lingers in our eyes after the flash is gone.

In the first moment, a slave "right off the boat" is brought to a hut where a woman is waiting. They haltingly exchange names. Then they make love, and the man "began to think that this place would be bearable," until the woman pulls out a knife and kills him.

The second moment, in this case, coincides with the first. The woman, Sally, is also a slave, kept for breeding purposes by a Louisiana planter named William Ramsey. Moved because the new man can still remember his African name, Ampofo--"in a year he will have forgotten that he was ever called anything other than the name that Ramsey gave him"--she acts to save him from the life of despair she knows.

In the gap between this moment and the next, we never learn how, or even whether, Sally was punished for the murder. Her son by Ramsey, Tomas, grows up in the Big House before Mrs. Ramsey sends him back to the slave quarters. Tomas holds himself aloof from ordinary blacks, including Sally, but driven by spite and anger, helps some escape via the underground railroad when Ramsey breaks a promise to free him at age 21. Tomas finally stockpiles guns and ignites a Nat Turner-style revolt.

The scene shifts to Chicago and to the descendants of Caroline, a slave whose escape Tomas arranged. Her daughter, Antoinette, a quilt-maker, lives with her deaf-mute brother and a derelict white woman. Antoinette's poor but peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of Percy Browne, who helped her flee the plantation through a tunnel when she was a child. Gratitude impels her to marry him, despite a considerable age difference and his soon-evident vices.

Here, after a poetic interlude, Baker skips at least half a century, to the Vietnam War era. Antoinette's grandson, Richard Browne, travels to Kenya to get in touch with his family's roots in "Mama Africa" but finds the experience profoundly alienating. He falls in love with an African girl, Imani, but their relationship can't survive her unplanned pregnancy, his confusion and the conflict between their cultures.

Richard's nephew, Robert, narrates the final chapter--about how the Browne family's middle-class status hasn't saved his brother, Brenndan, from drug addiction and a senseless murder.

The modern voices of Richard and Robert are sharp and engaging. We realize that Baker has told the preceding stories in a smooth but generic and "mythic" language that isn't modulated as much to reflect the individual characters or the dialects of their times and places.

One explanation for this breakdown between past and present voices: Baker is asking us to conceive of all these characters as aspects of a single African soul named River, whose mythic journey through time is acted out by the African Americans in the New World generation after generation.

As it happens, Baker's myth-making--the framing story of River--is the most interesting and original part of the book. The realistic parts have been done before, and better, by other writers: Alex Haley, Toni Morrison, William Styron, John Edgar Wideman, Richard Wright and Alice Walker, to name just a few.

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