Lewis SHINER'S body of work brings to mind a coloring book whose margins have been gleefully scrubbed away by an entire box of crayons. "Frontera," his 1984 debut novel, cast the author as a pioneer of cyberpunk; "Slam" (1990) explored the heady mixture of anarchy and skateboarding; and "Say Goodbye" (1999) drenches an otherwise conventional rise-and-fall story of a young musician with offbeat elements. Even in his comics work, Shiner shied away from caped crusaders, instead concocting "The Hacker Files," an exciting 12-part series featuring a freelance programmer moonlighting as a world-saver.
There can be a flip side to the creative freedom afforded by the torching of category lines: involuntary exile to the publishing tundra. It looked as if Shiner had been confined to that very permafrost until recently. A thawing was signaled by a graphic novel newspaper column; the "Fiction Liberation Front," an online repository of his publications; and now, his first novel in nearly a decade.
Once more, Shiner confounds expectations: Musical motifs are replaced by cries of protest, the offbeat traded for brutal realism, quotidian concerns superseded by pressing issues of race, class and family. "Black & White," as the title suggests, is painted on a broad canvas of stark contrasts and big themes, but the book doesn't suffer under the weight of its ambition.
The novel's quiet start introduces Michael, an Austin, Texas-based fledgling comic book illustrator who, at age 35, thinks himself "too old . . . to spend this much time with his parents" even as his career and romantic prospects leave him with limited options. The terminal cancer diagnosis of Robert, his father, and Robert's insistence on spending his dying days in Durham, N.C., give Michael a new purpose and bring him back to his birthplace, where he will hear his dad's last confession: involvement in a murder four decades ago in the heart of the once-bustling black Durham neighborhood of Hayti, which has lain fallow ever since, after deeply embedded racial hatred brought it down in flames during a riot.
The admission opens a Pandora's box of twists that shred Michael's supposed origins to ribbons and are revealed in a mixture of lengthy flashbacks and multiple viewpoints growing seamlessly out of Shiner's narrative. The tiered structure presents, with startling emotional acuity, an array of characters and allows the reader to see them in their truthful, monstrous, sympathetic glory. Robert's younger self, an engineer working on Hayti's first redevelopment, is believably transformed from an idealistic newlywed into an embittered man awakened out of his stupor, out of a "life that was laid out before him like a narrow road with high, neatly trimmed hedges on either side," by the lure of Hayti's underground voodoo magic. His wife, Ruth, is an astonishment of delusion, so bound up in possessive love for her racist father and her husband that she will do anything -- betray, or be betrayed -- to keep those loves, even if the price is the loss of her son's affection.
Completing Robert's romantic triangle is Mercedes "Mercy" Richard, whose smoldering intelligence and light-skinned beauty capture his fancy and offer the promise of emotional salvation. Like Aida's, Mercy's life is doomed to tragedy; unlike the opera, melodramatic flourish has been replaced with the desperation of a young woman trapped by the conflict between her dreams and the fury of those who wish to stamp them out. She may be disparagingly referred to as "more of a Dodge Dart . . . a car anybody could drive," but Shiner portrays her with her namesake's sleekness shot through with a certain vulnerability.
The reverberations of the past give Michael newfound purpose and re-imagined identity; they also strike a chord of deja vu for Hayti, whose revived gentrification has also revived longstanding tensions. Shiner seems to suggest, understandably so, that to ignore and obliterate a culture in the name of progress is to invite forces all too willing to express their most strident views with aggression and violence. But Shiner is wise to mix tessellated dots of humor and unexpected observations into his dramatic palette so that the reader is enlightened but never patronized. This is especially apparent in his depiction of the mechanics of the comics business and his portrait of Roger, Michael's gadfly collaborator, whose personality and one-liners suggest a mix of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore.
As "Black & White" draws to a close, and the fence-swinging array of viewpoints and time periods merge into a murky shade of contemporary gray, Michael is left wondering what's the use of revolutionary fervor when it effects little overall change. "The only answer . . . ," he is told, "is that you have to take sides and you have to show the world that you mean it. You do whatever you can, not because of what you hope to accomplish, but because to do anything else is ultimately . . . not acceptable." The same answer applies equally well to Shiner. The novel's mere existence is proof that Shiner means it -- and that readers ignore him at their peril. *