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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeously interesting,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Paperback)
I bought and read this on the back of Giovanni's Room which is one of my favourite books of all time. I found this to be just as good, dealing with issues of sexuality with subtlety and deftness. The characterisation and narratives are stunning. I learned a lot about the ways in which the Southern Blacks viewed the Northern Blacks in the States - something which I was unaware of and found facscinating.
Stylistically, Baldwin would make a brilliant subject for further or deeper study; his peculiarities of syntax and structure are something you'll either love or find frustrating. So why no five stars - I found some of the philosophising passages dull and ponderous. The actual novel at 600 words could have been more rigourously edited - although I'm not adverse to a good long one, this stretched me slightly... and I actually wanted it to finish. If the emphasis had stayed more with the narrative, the stories of peanut and Crunch for example in the way that the characterisation was detailed and fluid in 'Just Above My Head', I would have been more satisfied. Try the latter first - it's more condensed and immediate with just the right mixture of horror and beauty.
All this aside, Baldwin is my find of the decade so far and the elements which prevented me from awarding this five stars will certainly not prevent me from investigating this long lost genius further. I'm amazed he's not famous, or that the narratives haven't been converted into film - perhaps symptomatic of a world which despite a superficiality of acceptance, still prefers 'gay lite' and 'black lite'.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Baldwin's Best,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Hardcover)
You only need to read the first couple of pages in this book to understand it's importance. "Just Above My Head" combines nearly every theme covered by James Baldwin in previous novels; homosexuality, race, class, religion and betrayal - and confirms him as one of the most important writers to have come out of America.
It opens with a man mourning the death of his brother. Each sentence is filled with grief. It's clear that this isn't going to be an easy read but also clear is that Baldwin has put his heart and soul into every word.
This is simply one of the best books I've ever read. It's THE James Baldwin novel and a deserved candidate for the "Great American Novel." Stunning.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There is nothing round the corner,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Paperback)
To review such a novel is like establishing the 3D map of a continent without a computer. It is a nearly impossible task in less than, one hundred thousand words. I will spare you that.
The novel is in the first person and apart from two pages (548-551 in my edition that counts 557 pages) the man telling the story is Hall Montana, the elder brother of the main character Arthur Montana. The two pages are at the end of the novel and then for this very short moment Jimmy Miller, the friend and lover of Arthur Montana, is taking over. I can see two reasons why the author chose that first person story telling from cover to cover.
The first and most important one is to be able to explore the psychology of the characters, of the narrator of course but also of the other characters by making them tell their stories or their sides of the story to the narrator. This is artificial of course, but that's the main difference with Richard Wright: events are not the main substance of the novel but the prompters of psychological reactions and exploration. Thus Hall Montana has to be the confidant of all the characters, particularly his younger brother. This is a story telling trick in many ways but it gives the novel its second characteristic.
The book has a tremendous autobiographical dimension which is supposed to make us believe the story which at times does not correspond to Hall Montana's possible knowledge, for example Paris, though the author of the novel does know Paris like both sides of his right hand. This is the great danger of this novel and it is essential not to fall in such an easy and gaping trap.
Any attempt at trying to say or believe that this is James Baldwin's life would be completely misguided. First of all it would destroy the enjoyment of the novel as a novel and second it would prevent us from understanding the characters as fictional characters and force us into taking them as real persons. But it is true the novel is constantly pushing us into believing or just drifting into that perversion. That makes at times the novel difficult to appreciate since we constantly have to readjust our vision; No, Hall Montana is not James Baldwin, neither can Arthur Montana be him. I will thus try to take this novel as a real novel and I will only attribute to the author the architecture of the novel and the ideology that emerges from the novel.
James Baldwin and slavery
The novel concerns the Blacks in America, the descendants of slaves. Yet there is not one character who is identified as an ex-slave. This is important because the novel does not speak of slavery. It exclusively speaks of the Blacks in America after the Second World War. And how the Blacks are exploited or dominated in the Korean War, then freed in the emerging Civil Rights Movement, the famous Summer March of 1963 and slightly beyond. It does not take side at all, though Arthur Montana is very active in the South, though he is from Harlem. The South of the time of segregation and the period of the white racist and criminal backlash when these whites realized the Blacks were up in vocal and mass protest and that they were going to be heard in the USA and in the world. Non-violent for sure but with a lot of psychological and social violence, along with some purely physical violence, including one case of abduction and killing on one hand and a chain gang episode on the other hand. The South is seen as a menace from beginning to end, and yet some kind of shrine where Arthur Montana wants to go on active pilgrimages to support with his gospel singing the Black communities that are peacefully protesting against segregation. But such pilgrimages have to have their human offerings and these move slightly from pure assassination by the Ku Klux Klan to official but appealable chain gang legal kidnapping. This evolution that is not really assessed gives the novel a taste of anti-climactic perspective, but we will come back to that point later.
There is a very short passage about the Black Muslims and how these consider the Blacks have to take their own affairs in their own hands and thus conquer political power by freeing themselves from the heritage of the past. But James Baldwin only sees the universal accusation against the whites who have conquered the world, conquered God too and made it white, and set the whole non-white world, though essentially Blacks, into slavery through colonialism. These Black Muslims are the only ones, but only in two pages, to assert that the Blacks have to re-conquer God who was stolen from them by the whites. Hall Montana rejects this position in one short sentence:
"Gods who could be stolen and then stolen back did not interest me at all. I wasn't raised to deal in stolen goods." (322)
We can note the very dark humor conveyed by the play on the wortds Gods-goods. That's how Hall Montana pushes aside anything he does not want to support; with a play on words, with some dark - I dare not say black - humor. That kind of black humor is constantly present in the relations among the characters, and the language is often the mirror in which you can find that humor, though situations are at times used, like the drastic image of the death of Arthur Montana, lying on his back on the floor of an underground toilet in a London pub not too far from Piccadilly Circus. This image is used from the very start of the novel to the end and we will only know what really happened at the end, and here James Baldwin cheats on the goods since the context till the very last pages makes us imagine he was the victim of some racial crime or violence, though we are surprised about London, and yet we know London pubs are not always very peaceful. But we only learn at the very end that he dies of a heart attack. This ending blows up the pretence of the narrator having gotten his facts and states of minds of the characters from them since Arthur will not be able to speak about his last trip to London and his subsequent death to any one at all. Yet apparently he has a lot to say in the novel.
Arthur Montana, a gospel singer
Arthur Montana is a gospel singer who will get famous in the last 14 years of his life. He starts with a quartet of four Harlem teenagers: Arthur Montana; Peanut (Alexander Teophilus Brown, was not sent to Korea because of his physical condition and ended up in Washington DC, was abducted and assassinated in the South by the Ku Klux Kan); Red (ended as a junkie after the Korean War, abandoned by his wife and two children); and Crunch (--- Hogan, Arthur's first love but who lost his love or rather the appeal of his love for Arthur in Korea and is declared "mad" by Hall Montana, though he is "working in a school for delinquent boys, and had one girl friend after another," page 333). The quartet is the Trumpets of Zion. For a while they work along with a child preacher, Julia Miller that brings her family into the picture. That family is entirely built and working around this Julia: the mother Amy, the father Joel, the daughter Julia and the son James, aka Jimmy. Note the three J initials of the father and the children. The mother will die fast and then Julia will get out of the pulpit. The father will get crazy and will rape Julia repeatedly until she gets pregnant (from Crunch maybe, from the father probably) and he beats her into aborting. We can say at this moment Jesus is far away from these brothers and sisters. Arthur and Jimmy are trying to get together in a later period but they can't and it is by accident that Jimmy will play piano for Arthur for the first time in Florida: the accompanying pianist, Scott, from Harlem being forcefully enrolled in a chain gang in Montgomery.
Jimmy and Arthur will establish then a collaboration that will immediately evolve into a love affair. But we must first understand what gospels or the Gospel are for Blacks.
"N[****]rs can sing gospel as no other people can because they aren't singing gospel - . . . When a n[****]r quotes the gospel, he is not quoting: he is telling you what happened to him today and what is certainly going to happen to you tomorrow. . . Our suffering is our bridge to one another. Everyone must cross this bridge, or die while he still lives - but this is not political, still less, a popular apprehension." (112)
There is no apprehension of the past only the apprehension of the present suffering and the creation of empathy with other Blacks, the audience. Gospel merges the present situation of the Blacks and the Biblical or religious reference. They re-appropriate the God who was never stolen from them but who was white from the very start, even if Semitic, and the whites only made that God of theirs the only God and confiscated his possession. By investing black present experience into this vision of God, Gospel singers make him black or of an unspecified color, hence assumed black. God becomes for them a human but dematerialized God whose presence is absolutely real within his virtuality.
Music, the cry of life and death
But music has something else in it and it is this something else that enables the merging of other fields into this religious discourse.
".Music don't begin like a song. . . Music can get to be a song, but it starts with a cry. That's all. It might be the cry of a newborn baby, or the sound of a hog being slaughtered, or a man when they put the knife to his balls. And that sound is everywhere. People spend their whole lives trying to drown out that sound." (96)
The first cry is universal, all babies cry when they are born and ot is a call for love and nurturing. But even so, this is merged into the music because the music has a double nature:
"You worry too much about the beat, but the beat comes out of the time - the space between one note and the next note. And you got to trust the time you hear - that's how you play your song." (87)
"Sometimes they [Arthur and Jimmy] both feel imprisoned by the song, leaping to go further than the song, or Arthur's tempo, allow: then they sweat hardest, learn most. There is always a beat beneath the beat, another music beneath the music, and beyond." (540)
"The song does not belong to the singer. The singer is found by the song. Ain't no singer, anywhere, ever made up a song - that is not possible. He hears something. I really believe, at the bottom of my balls, baby, that something hears him, something says, come here! And jumps on him just exactly like you jump on a piano or a saw or a violin or a drum and you make it sing the song you hear: and you love it, and you take care of it, better than you take care of yourself, can you dig it? But you don't have no mercy on it. You can't have mercy! That sound you hear, that sound you try to pitch with the utmost precision - and did you hear me? Wow! - is the sound of millions and millions and, who knows, now, listening, where life is, where is death?" (550)
Music, and gospel, becomes a medium for that eternal question reverberating constantly in the consciousness and the unconsciousness of every person experiencing life that only becomes savory when death is present in the background. That's the song in the song, the beat in the beat, the tempo in the time and the time in the tempo. Then music and gospel can be the voice of the Blacks and their present suffering. But it can also be the voice of the love between Arthur and Jimmy. And Arthur uses that medium all the time to declare his love to Jimmy in public. Arthur's farewell song to Jimmy on the stage of a Paris music hall, in the absence of Jimmy himself, due to their final argument, Arthur feeling the end coming, is such a metaphor, such a public declaration:
you sure took,
one big ride. . .
don't get too lost
in all I say.
but at the time,
felt that way. . .
I've got to stop believing
in all your lies." (552-553)
This song seems to be extracted from Feelin' Alright by the English band Traffic, released in 1968 and then made world famous by Joe Cocker in 1969. The merging of gay sex in this song is of course original here in this novel. But this merging is made possible because the music is seen as a basically metaphorical medium for all kinds of human passions, experiences, empathy or compassion, suffering and joy.
This gay element is also typical of James Baldwin and beyond any easy identification of the author with James Miller, aka Jimmy in the book, or with Hall Montana, who had his gay sex experience in Korea (boys will be boys and men will be men and soldiers will always grown-up boys), or even Arthur Montana, gay sex and homosexuality is merged into segregation and desegregation.
"These people got the gall to claim to be giving something they didn't never have the right to take away." (289)
And Arthur is feeling the same rejection for his being the "kid brother" of Crunch in Harlem as for being black everywhere, and particularly in the South, except in Paris in France.
"In the split moment that the girl and the man [the caretaker and her man in Crunch's building where he has a room before going to Korea] had looked at him, Arthur had felt violated, stripped naked, spat on. It was in nothing that was said. It was in the contempt and complicity in the eyes. . . Then he wanted to run, not from Crunch exactly, but out of this eternity." (251)
James Baldwin and change
This situation leads us to the essential dimension of the novel. It is a realistic, and yet very frozen, vision of the situation of Blacks in America in the period stretching from 1950 to the early 1970s. The main problem brought forward by James Baldwin is that black people are invisible. They are not seen in their human dimension, and at times they are not seen at all by many whites who can evacuate the "problem" that way. Blacks become incorporeal beings floating in mid air in a society that the whites see as white and nothing but white. Erase the color of black people and then there is no racial "problem" any more. That's in line with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. This invisibility becomes ingrained in black people.
"You cannot love if you cannot be loved, you cannot see if you cannot be seen." (88)
"The gift will tell you if anybody loves you;, if anybody sees you - especially your father, your mother, your brother - and the gift will tell you, if you can read it, what they see." (108)
"It is impossible for a black man. . . not to anticipate, endlessly, disaster at the hands of his countrymen. The result is that he is always looking around him at people who do not know, or dare not know, what he is thinking, people who have been rendered incapable of seeing him." (330)
"All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It's not we who can't forget. You can't forget. . . You can't forget the black breasts that gave you milk: but you don't dare remember either. . . who can hate a baby? But you can: that's why you call me Tar baby. . . Tell you one thing: that God you found is a very sick dude. I'd check him out again, if I was you. I think He's laughing at you - I tell you like a friend. He's made it so that you can't see the grass or the trees or the sky or your woman or your brother or your child or me. Because you don't see me." (396)
This invisibility the Blacks have to live through all the time in white society makes them close themselves onto their community. And strangely enough that makes them unable to see themselves and one another. As we have seen with the black caretaker of Crunch's room in Harlem, she does not see Crunch and Arthur as they are defining themselves as two beautiful lovers, but she sees through them and despises them because she does not see the love between the two boys, and she has interiorized the code of moral rejection of the whites. This is the acme of this segregation for a black person, to suffer rejection and violence from another black person who knowingly or unknowingly, willfully or un-willfully, for a profit or no profit at all, becomes the instrument of white rejection, white segregation, white racism. We always find someone smaller or weaker than us and we then can bully them in a way or another, always on the basis of the norms of the dominant layer of the society.
Is there a future in this world?
But this general idea is not rooted in a knowledge and proper evaluation of the pros and cons of what slavery was, of what Blacks and whites were under slavery, of what is good and what is bad in every single one of us and in our community. This idea then leads James Baldwin to the impossibility to understand the evolution of society, the way things go as fast as they can, which means as fast as the people in the concerned society can go. James Baldwin does not see the positive in this evolution and he rejects desegregation because the Blacks are becoming some entertaining Sambo presence in previously entirely white surroundings, and what's more they must pay a high price to get into these previously all-white restaurant in Washington DC where they have to play the social clowns for the whites. One example is explained with Julia who made the money that saved her and Jimmy (after a phase in prostitution in New Orleans). She made a career in advertising as a model and Hall Montana is a professional of advertising and commercial communication.
"We were expected to be aware, too, that the presence of blacks in advertising was a major sociological breakthrough. Was it? For our breakthroughs seemed to occur only on those levels where we were most speedily expendable and most easily manipulated. And a `breakthrough' to what? I was beginning to be wary of these breakthroughs, was not certain that I wanted a lifetime pass to Disneyland. On the other hand, here we were, and you can't have your cake and eat it, too: we would simply have to find a way to use, and survive and transcend the present breakthrough the same way we have survived so many pothers." (436)
No matter how little visible the Blacks became with advertising or the famous film "Guess Who is Coming to Dinner Tonight" (1967), it was visibility and it was the result of the 1963 conquered visibility in Washington DC. James Baldwin takes a surprising stand practically negating the evolution of the American society in this long period from 1945 to his present 1979. But at the end of the novel, though before the 14 years of full love relation with Jimmy, Arthur in Paris is having a relation with a certain Frenchman Guy Lazar, a rich but declining gay man, and Arthur likes Paris because of a strange reversal of emotion:
"Nothing in Paris really reminds him of home, in spite of the disastrous French attempts to imitate the American scene. . . He has no way of understanding what they are saying, therefore, it does not matter what they are saying: in the resulting silence, he drops the guard. . . He could never have done that in New York, where all his senses were always alert for danger, or in London, which was exasperating because it spoke a foreign language which sounded, superficially, like its own. But they were saying different things in London, or they were saying the same things in a different way. His efforts to break the code exhausted him. But nothing is demanded of him in Paris. In Paris, he is practically invisible - practically, free." (438)
Paris, the land of invisibility
There is a contradiction here in terms. In Paris he makes the people around him invisible in what they may say or mean because he does not understand their language and he transfers this invisibility he projects on them onto himself and he becomes invisible, so he says, in Paris, invisible. It is of course not true and he will be seen by Guy Lazar because he is invisible to himself. He will elope onto a few day long adventure with that French red-haired man who is looking for an exotic boyfriend after the departure of his steady Algerian friend because Algerians are having some problems in Paris at the time: a very innocuous way of speaking of one of the most ruthless colonial wars of that period that will only be overtaken in cruelty by the Vietnam war. When you are like that totally lost in an environment that does not understand you and that you cannot understand, the first one who will cross the divide will be welcome, especially if he can speak your language and you will not see the motivations of this trespasser.
That's why in Paris, he is introduced to a black musician in some club and this black musician used to be a friend of Arthur's father and he hijacks Arthur into singing for him in the club. The musician is a fictitious Sonny Carr, a probable allusion to the drummer James Owen `Sonny' Carr, born in Dunn, North Carolina and with a career in New York, another James of course, but that is not exploited. Or is he an allusion to the blues singer Sonny Terry, born in Greensboro, Georgia? You can't know from the novel itself. Sonny Carr suggests the song Daniel Saw the Stone. Arthur does not see the metaphor of Daniel in exile in Babylon, then in the lion pit. He sticks to the stone being Jesus, hence to the most superficial meaning: that of the words in the dictionary. But he concludes the episode with a song of James Baldwin's own composition:
"I'm pleased with what you've done,
And your race has been run
And I've brought you the key
And I've got your key here with me
And I praise God, I have another building,
Not made with hands." (490)
This is a very sad note that is supposed to announce the end, yet to come in Paris and London fourteen years later. It is sad because it is God's judgment of the artists, here Arthur and Sonny Carr. They are welcome to that other building not made with hands, hence that messianic Jerusalem promised to those who have fulfilled their mission on earth. But that mission has nothing to do with the suffering on this earth to be suffered like a curse, with discrimination to be accepted like a natural fact of life, desegregation, living together, finding a way out of the painful present, and these latter three are hardly considered, because the present will always be painful, even if some problems might seem to be solved, because new forms of suffering will always appear.
The final dream. . . or is it nightmare?
And that leads us to the concluding page of this book, Hall Montana's dream of Arthur's death. All the characters are there in this dream: Paul Montana, Ruth Granger Montana (Hall's wife), Florence Montana, Amy Miller, Martha (Hall's girlfriend before going to Korea), Sidney (Hall's friend turned Black Muslim and Martha's husband to be), Joel Miller, Tony Montana (Hall's son), Odessa Montana (Hall's daughter), Arthur Montana, Jimmy Miller, Julia Miller.
"Florence is in the rain pouring down on the road. . . Ruth's fingers stroke my back. Arthur moves to stand beside me.
"Shall we tell them? What's up the road?" . . .
And Arthur repeats his question.
"Shall we tell them? What's up the road?"
The question torments me, like a song I once heard Arthur sing, and can't now, in my dream, for the life of me, remember. . .
see what tomorrow brings. . .
The sun went down,
Tomorrow brought us / rain.
Then I do remember, in my dream, the beginning of a song I used to love to hear Arthur sing. Oh, my loving brother, when the world's on fire, don't you want God's bosom to be your pillow? And I say to him, in my dream, No, they'll find out what's up the road, ain't nothing up the road but us, man, and then I wake up, and my pillow is wet with tears." (556-557)
And that leads us to an open end in the present of the dream that leads to the present of the last sentence which is not in the dream any more, while the novel was all in the past.
Time to conclude.
The book came twenty years before the concept of Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome/Disorder approach to slavery from the point of view of the descendants of the slaves who want to become a constructive part of this world of ours, but it is a perfect example of the disorder. We could follow every single page to show how slavery left behind, reinforced by segregation, some psychological elements that block the possibility to change, the main characteristic being the totally closed up reality in which the Blacks were trapped-and-chained by slavery and this reality developed in them, in order to survive, a defensive set of educational and behavioral features that were transmitted from mother to children, and from father to children, eventually, and that was the necessity to behave in a certain way and never to show what you may think, feel or just be. Three centuries of such forced training and taming and breaking cannot disappear in a minute. They called it seasoning and it required quite a lot of hard hot pungent hateful and despicable violence that had no excuse of any sort.
Yet James Baldwin seems to reject to the end of the road what could be desirable in the present drenched with rain. There is thus no hope, but there is also a rejection of hope in this world except in a well secluded and protected niche that has to remain invisible to everyone outside. And that is the main characteristic of PTSlaveryS/D, the mental seclusion that produces the impossibility to assume the past and turn it into a force for the future. And that is possible because that past required from the black slaves a tremendous personal force to just survive and live and survive again before escaping to the Indians, on the underground railroad, or music and religion, Vodun or Christian.
Any wild animal when it refuses life in a zoo or in a cage may exhibit rage at first but very often just lets itself die. Isn't that why they never enslaved, at least not for very long, the Indians because they could not live long in captivity? The force of the Blacks in slavery is absolutely proportional to the violence from the slave-owners. That force was so powerful that in spite of everything the African slaves kept their music, their polyrhythmic beat and tempo, and the beat in the beat, the tempo in the time, the time in the tempo, and so many other cadenzas within, under, beyond and through-and-through cadenzas. That is the main human heritage of the whole humanity from slavery, and I am talking here of positive heritage. The African slaves gave to the world a music it had never heard before and it is our present.
The main defect of the novel is that it is so rich in hierarchically piled up strata that it reads very slowly, but it is worth the time and the effort, even if Arthur Montana's death on his back on the floor of an underground toilet in a pub in London is an anticlimax as for racist violence and white cruelty. It is nothing but a heart attack after an argument with his lover, his heart in a way, Jimmy Miller who may have been then uprooted out of his own heart. Beautiful romantic poetry but an anticlimax nevertheless. Is love more important than society? Is the heart more important than the mind? Is the personal blooming of a person more important than the development of social justice? Is God nothing but a pillow against brutality and evil? Or is God one of the inspirers and leaders of human progress?
To ask the question is also to answer it.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic of American literature,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Kindle Edition)
Set mainly among black communities in desegregating America during the 1950s-1970s, with shorter periods in London and Paris, this long, powerful, passionate novel, one of Baldwin's best, explores with bitter, searing honesty, in language that both sings and has an angry beat, the lives of a group of friends and their families. It shows how they are shaped by the discrimination and violence of the society around them, often overt, by the love they feel for each other (straight, gay, bisexual, familial, non-sexual), by the ties of black history, music, language, humour and culture. It's a rich, complex and moving mix; but for so profound a novel, it is not difficult to read.
It's told by Hall Montana who, writing in his forties, is trying to reclaim the memory of that period - and the memory of his beloved younger brother Arthur, who dies young. The story centres around Arthur, a talented gospel singer who is destined to become famous in his mid-twenties. Arthur has a teenage love affair with an older member of his gospel group, Crunch; it's a first love, and like most first loves it subsequently shapes his approach to his homosexuality: these passages are beautifully evoked, full of tenderness and passion - few writers can describe love-making with such beauty. But Crunch, like Hall and other members of the gospel group, are drafted into the Korean war, and Arthur's forced to go it alone. For large chunks of the narrative he is absent, on tour, abroad, and we could be forgiven for thinking the novel was more about Hall and his circle than Arthur; we catch up with him from time to time, and he re-emerges at the end to take centre stage again. By this time he has begun affair with a boy called Jimmy who has hovered on the edge of the narrative throughout the book, waiting his turn to step into the limelight.
Jimmy is the kid brother of another major character, Julia, whom we first meet as a young teenage preacher: she is 'a holy child' who at the age of thirteen can confidently stand before a congregation of fervent Christian blacks and preach sermons to them. Jimmy's overshadowed by the attention she gets, which makes him feel invisible; he alone rejects her holy status. Julia's religious fervour blinds her to what's happening to her mother (she is dying of cancer) and when the Lord fails to cure her mother, Julia loses her faith and begins her long, tragic fall. This is but one strand in a novel in which religion permeates everything: the characters' upbringing, thoughts, moral attitudes, language and culture. Soon after her mother's death, Julia is violently and sexually abused by her father; she has an abortion; later, she resorts to prostitution to support Jimmy, then rises from that to become a model. She and Hall fall in love; but she leaves to do missionary work in Africa. She returns only at the end of the novel to meet up with Hall, Arthur and Jimmy again. Hall later marries and has children. In his early forties, lamenting his brother's anticlimactic death in a London pub, he sits down to write a memoir of their times.
He writes about the racism which affected their daily lives, sometimes violently, which shadowed their thoughts, shaped their language, made them live in a simmering state of cynicism, humiliation, fear, anger and disgust. In this novel Baldwin does not shy away from black politics, from the realities of living in a racist state. The sense of menace he creates, especially when the group drive south into Bible Belt country to sing in churches - one of them is abducted and almost certainly murdered - is palpable; it brings home to the reader just how appalling it was for blacks living in the USA then (and that was only a generation or two ago).
He writes about homosexuality too, though this is presented much more as a private affair, one which doesn't seem to trouble the characters much at all, despite this being the post-McCarthy era when gay people were seen as a threat to state security and suffered the same level of discrimination as blacks. Maybe this is because for Baldwin sexuality is more an expression of love rather than of a social or political identity. It is, after all, difficult to talk of 'gay' and 'straight' if characters are happy to sleep with either sex (Crunch, for example, Arthur's first lover, is bisexual; even Hall has sex with men while in Korea). He is just as good at writing passages describing straight sexual intimacy (eg Hall and Julia's) as he is describing gay love-making: there is no moral hierarchy here, they are qualitatively the same.
Indeed, he was not afraid to tackle subjects that were still difficult to talk about during the 1970s when he was writing this novel: homosexuality, bisexuality, incest, child abuse, under-age pregnancy and abortion, prostitution, teenage sex, drug dependency - they are all there in the novel. But nothing is gratuitous or there for effect; he never judges his characters; his understanding of his characters' pain, complexities, faults and conflicts is deep and humane.
The language, too, is full of the rhythms of black American culture, blues, gospel hymns, full of humour and lyricism and profanities; it is declamatory, rhetorical, it echoes the rhythms and poetry of the King James Bible; underneath it is a soft beat that pulses through the novel. Few writers can achieve anything like that (though occasionally I was reminded of DH Lawrence).
The novel's not perfect. There's a sleight of hand going on with the genre. It's ostensibly written in the first person by Hall, who is writing a memoir of those years, but there are numerous extended scenes where he is not present yet which he describes as if he was, and these seem to be written in 3rd person. He slides between the two seamlessly. This does work; but it also make you wonder about the reliability of his account: half of it is remembered, the other half imagined, presumably based on some secondhand account. Also, the book, at nearly 600 pages, is too long. The last 200 pages lose focus, seems to meander, the emotional temperature falls and narrative drive slackens: it needed some severe editing. And the climax, which had been foreshadowed ominously from the beginning - Arthur's death (just when he'd at last found love with Jimmy) turns out to be an anti-climax. One wonders why.
Despite these caveats, this is a classic of American literature, revealing of its racist, homophobic, religious time and place yet universal in its approach to its characters and their networks of troubled love.
4.0 out of 5 stars absorbing in places,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Paperback)
This is a very atmospheric novel. One can hear the singing and sighing of the Black Pentecostal church, can sell the toilet, taste the kind of food someone has eaten and which infuses their sperm, can feel the wet hair from the rain, which is harder for black people to dry because of their `natty' hair.
The King James Bible is never far from people's memories: "pressed down, and running over." Nor are the spirituals - source of consolation and empowerment.
Eldridge Cleaver said that Baldwin's fiction is finally "void of a political, economic, or even a social reference." Maybe this novel is Baldwin's attempt to answer such criticism. People's stories are told against the background of the civil rights movement. We see the human cost of a murder, the devastation caused by death and bereavement of whole families. Frustrating events like taxi drivers not giving rides to black people and big events like the Ku Klux Klan and racist police mar everyday life and explain the `chip on your shoulder' which many black people are accused of having.
Sexual acts are very graphic, though some are dark and some innocent. The father who `uses' his thirteen-year-old daughter for sex after his wife has died explains that it is normal and that all girls want their daddies.
The teenage boy's first sexual experience is told in such a way that we feel his emotions and his fear that, in oral sex, his partner might bite off his member.
I was particularly interested in his musings upon the role of memory:
"I wonder, more and more, about what we call memory. The burden--the role--of memory is to clarify the event, to make it useful, even, to make it bearable. But memory is, also, what the imagination makes, or has made, of the event, and, the more dreadful the event, the more likely it is that the memory will distort, or efface it. It is, thus, perfectly possible--indeed, it is common--to act on the genuine results of the event, at the same time that the memory manufactures quite another one, an event totally unrelated to the visible and uncontrollable effects in one's life. This may be why we appear to learn absolutely nothing from experience, or may, in other words, account for our incoherence: memory does not require that we reconstitute the event, but that we justify it.
"This cannot be done by memory, but by looking toward tomorrow, and so, to undo the horror, we repeat it."
"If one wishes to be instructed--not that anyone does--concerning the treacherous role that memory plays in a human life, consider how relentlessly the water of memory refuses to break, how it impedes that journey into the air of time. Time: the whisper beneath that word is death. With this unanswerable weight hanging heavier and heavier over one's head, the vision becomes cloudy, nothing is what it seems...
How then, can I trust my memory concerning that particular Sunday afternoon?...Beneath the face of anyone you ever loved for true--anyone you love, you will always love, love is not at the mercy of time and it does not recognize death, they are strangers to each other--beneath the face of the beloved, however ancient, ruined, and scarred, is the face of the baby your love once was, and will always be, for you. Love serves, then, if memory doesn't, and passion, apart from its tense relation to agony, labors beneath the shadow of death. Passion is terrifying, it can rock you, change you, bring your head under, as when a wind rises from the bottom of the sea, and you're out there in the craft of your mortality, alone."
Also interesting was the musing upon the self-knowledge required of a writer: YOU have sensed my fatigue and my panic, certainly, if you have followed me until now, and you can guess how terrified I am to be approaching the end of my story. It was not meant to be my story, though it is far more my story than I would have thought, or might have wished. I have wondered, more than once, why I started it, but--I know why. It is a love song to my brother. It is an attempt to face both love and death.
I have been very frightened, for: I have had to try to strip myself naked. One does not like what one sees then, and one is afraid of what others will see: and do. To challenge one's deepest, most nameless fears, is, also, to challenge the heavens. It is to drag yourself, and everyone and everything and everyone you love, to the attention of the fiercest of the gods: who may not forgive your impertinence, who may not spare you. All that I can offer in extenuation of my boldness is my love.
I cannot say that every page completely absorbed me but many pages did.
5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Moving,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Kindle Edition)
Bladwin can write with amazing detail, but retain one's interest and then pan out to whole nature of human loss and grief and back to the pause in a handshake. A revelation.
5.0 out of 5 stars First Baldwin I have read,
This review is from: Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (Paperback)
...but not the last after this amazing journey where love and family are central to survival in the exploration of who one really is a world that still does not take kindly to difference. I could not put this book down.
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Just Above My Head (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) by James Baldwin (Paperback - 27 Oct. 1994)