THE CATTLE KILLING
John Edgar Wideman
A complex and challenging new novel from the author of Sent For You Yesterday (1985), Fever (1989), and other rich, provocative examinations of America's heritage of racial injustice. Wideman's narrator tells the "story" his book promises to contain to his father, who is also a writer. It's a static one, essentially a series of tableaux, with many protagonists. Among them is an 18th-century black preacher who has escaped from a "stricken city" (Philadelphia) in time of plague "to seek refuge in the peaceful environs of the countryside where I wandered preaching the word of God." The book's title refers to the African Xhosa tribe, who also figure in the narrative: Following the dictates of a false prophecy, they destroy their cattle herd believing that this will prevent their enslavement by European colonizers. Also central to the complex narrative are the mysterious appearances of a disabled young African woman (sometimes mute, sometimes blind) who represents to those who view her, variously, a teacher, a savior, an accuser, and a judge. The novel quite deliberately eschews linear plot, ranging across three centuries, circling back repeatedly to focus, from constantly shifting perspectives, on retold and transformed stories: of a racially mixed couple murdered by their neighbors; a black bishop who courageously removed his congregation from "the white people's church" in 18th-century Philadelphia; and an aristocratic white family that casts out a baby infected with the plague, bringing on its own eventual annihilation. Wideman, two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, is an accomplished and powerful stylist, and the sheer formal beauty of his tense, dramatic, image-filled sentences gives his angry summa of our violent history a commanding authority. A dazzling apocalyptic meditation--and a brilliantly imagined portrayal of 18th century America--that nevertheless lacks coherence and presents a web of enigmatic symbolism so thickly woven that many willing readers simply won't know what to make of it.