Billed by the publisher as a ``brief epic of the African- American experience,'' Baker's first novel is in fact an awkward yoking-together of four related vignettes from the preCivil War period, along with two weak stories set in the recent past and the present. In the opening sequence, a naive young African, fresh off the slave-ship, is comforted, then mercy-killed by a plantation ``breeder'' woman who refuses to go on making babies—and more slaves—for the Master. Next, in ``Tomas,'' the mulatto son of the Master describes his transition from coddled ``special'' slave to secret Underground Railroad activist to torture victim and leader of a violent uprising. And ``Antoinette'' concerns a young runaway slave (her mother dies in the escape) who ekes out a living in freedom, cares for her traumatized little brother, and leaps at marriage with an older man—who infects her with venereal disease. Baker then jumps ahead to the Vietnam era: Antoinette's descendant Richard, a college dropout embittered by his brother's death in the war, goes to ``Mama Africa'' to pull himself together—but just behaves badly (and narrates in a labored pastiche of period slang). Finally, 25 years later, Richard's middle-class nephew broods guiltily on the fate of his own brother: a heroin addict in prison for the senseless murder of a child. The potentially potent themes here will be familiar to readers of Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Alex Haley, and many others. But while Baker demonstrates some basic storytelling talent, he lacks the skill needed for this ambitious debut. The result is a fragmentary volume of unconvincing first-person narratives, straining for poetry but often settling for melodrama.
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