Novel's Real Character Is New York City Itself
By Kevin Baker
HarperCollins, 2006, $26.95
But the real character is the city itself, especially the streets, churches, jazz clubs, bars and politics of Harlem.
The Rev. Jonah Dove and his wife, Amanda, are passengers on a train returning to New York after a visit with Adam Clayton Powell, minister of a powerful New York congregation, at Powell's Oak Bluffs summer home. Powell later became the first black to serve in Congress.
Whether blessing or curse, Jonah Dove is a black man who looks white. His skin color denotes a white grandmother. His wife is black.
To a group of drunken soldiers, the couple appears as a white man with a black wife, and the association attracts derision. Jonah takes the harassment, which borders on violence, until the young black man selling sandwiches comes to his rescue. The teen knocks the drunks around and stops the harassment before it reaches real violence.
Jonah is grateful but resentful, not because of the defense by young Malcolm Little, but because of what he perceives as his own cowardice and inability to protect his wife and himself from such humiliation.
The incident sets the pace for character development of both Jonah and Malcolm. Both will suffer the pangs of familial regret, tinged with racial frustration and questions of faith. Malcolm is a fictional version of the man who was to become Malcolm X.
Such achievement is far in the future for Malcolm during the time of this novel, however, for he turns from legitimate work into a hustler of the worst kind. Malcolm dabbles in numbers, assists a pimp, runs drugs and falls for a glamorous cabaret singer.
For the greater part of this tome, the paths of Malcolm and Jonah do not again cross, but the plot builds to a climax that clarifies the destiny of each man. Their direction will differ, but their lives will be changed forever.
"Striver's Row" is the final volume in Kevin Baker's trilogy of historical novels based on the people and the streets of New York City.
In vivid language Baker creates the wartime atmosphere with undertones of racism in a city thought to be too big for such minor deviations. Nevertheless, both men come to equate the genocidal treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany with the American treatment of its black citizens.
Waiting for service in a prestigious restaurant, Jonah reflects on "the circuitous mysteries of bigotry" as he is served because of his appearance as a white man. But when he sought service in the company of black women from his congregation, service was denied.
It is from such anecdotes that reality of the times emerges.
Beautifully written and brilliantly insightful, "Striver's Row" is, nevertheless, a ponderous volume of 550 pages, including epilogue, glossary and acknowledgements. The plot unfolds through a series of flashbacks, but the author's occasional addition of a flashback within a flashback hampers the natural flow of the narrative. It is material such as this that wins Nobel prizes, but this reviewer thinks its literary value would soar to new heights with judicious editing of about 100 pages.
Baker is a columnist for American Heritage magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times and Harper's. He and his wife, writer Ellen Abrams, live in New York City.
Florence Gilkeson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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