Vital and unsparing. Murray taps the wellspring of greatness and posits it as a challenge for artists-in-the-making.

FROM THE BRIARPATCH FILE

ON CONTEXT, PROCEDURE, AND AMERICAN IDENTITY

Smooth but scrappy essays on the creation of art, universally and with particular attention paid to the circumstances of the African-American experience.

Octogenarian cultural critic Murray (The Seven League Boots, 1996, etc.) is both a keen participant and observer as he deals out his thoughts on the blues, Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro?, New York in the 1920s, the glory of Duke Ellington, among other topics. A rapier intellect keeps these essays quick and nimble, but they leave plenty to chew on in their wake. Murray is especially fascinated by “the matter of processing or stylizing idiomatic folk and pop particulars, which is to say extending, elaborating, and refining folk and pop material up to the level of fine art.” Duke Ellington is one example; he transformed indigenous American raw material into universal art by seizing the “indispensable dynamics of the vernacular imperative.” In parallel, the author notes that writers such as Faulkner (and one might add Murray himself) conjure a sense of place via idiomatic particulars that can be turned as metaphors. To survive, let alone flourish, Murray argues, one has to think fast, be “ready to swing as if he were a competent jazz musician in the ever unpredictable circumstances of a jam session and also always be ready to riff or improvise on the break.” This seems a crucial statement of reality not just for African-Americans, but by extension for anyone living at the turn of the millennium. Especially insightful is a previously published interview (by Sanford Pinsker) in which Murray talks about hearing the jazz in his favorite writers (Kafka, Mann, Auden): “When a sentence sounds right to me, it's probably some variation of the Kansas City 4/4.”

Vital and unsparing. Murray taps the wellspring of greatness and posits it as a challenge for artists-in-the-making.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-42142-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2001

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SLEEPERS

An extraordinary true tale of torment, retribution, and loyalty that's irresistibly readable in spite of its intrusively melodramatic prose. Starting out with calculated, movie-ready anecdotes about his boyhood gang, Carcaterra's memoir takes a hairpin turn into horror and then changes tack once more to relate grippingly what must be one of the most outrageous confidence schemes ever perpetrated. Growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, former New York Daily News reporter Carcaterra (A Safe Place, 1993) had three close friends with whom he played stickball, bedeviled nuns, and ran errands for the neighborhood Mob boss. All this is recalled through a dripping mist of nostalgia; the streetcorner banter is as stilted and coy as a late Bowery Boys film. But a third of the way in, the story suddenly takes off: In 1967 the four friends seriously injured a man when they more or less unintentionally rolled a hot-dog cart down the steps of a subway entrance. The boys, aged 11 to 14, were packed off to an upstate New York reformatory so brutal it makes Sing Sing sound like Sunnybrook Farm. The guards continually raped and beat them, at one point tossing all of them into solitary confinement, where rats gnawed at their wounds and the menu consisted of oatmeal soaked in urine. Two of Carcaterra's friends were dehumanized by their year upstate, eventually becoming prominent gangsters. In 1980, they happened upon the former guard who had been their principal torturer and shot him dead. The book's stunning denouement concerns the successful plot devised by the author and his third friend, now a Manhattan assistant DA, to free the two killers and to exact revenge against the remaining ex-guards who had scarred their lives so irrevocably. Carcaterra has run a moral and emotional gauntlet, and the resulting book, despite its flaws, is disturbing and hard to forget. (Film rights to Propaganda; author tour)

Pub Date: July 10, 1995

ISBN: 0-345-39606-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1995

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Erudite writing from an author struggling to find meaning through music.

THEY CAN'T KILL US UNTIL THEY KILL US

An Ohio-based poet, columnist, and music critic takes the pulse of the nation while absorbing some of today’s most eclectic beats.

At first glance, discovering deep meaning in the performance of top-40 songstress Carly Rae Jepsen might seem like a tough assignment. However, Abdurraqib (The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, 2016) does more than just manage it; he dives in fully, uncovering aspects of love and adoration that are as illuminating and earnest as they are powerful and profound. If he can do that with Jepsen's pop, imagine what the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Prince, or Nina Simone might stir in him. But as iconic as those artists may be, the subjects found in these essays often serve to invoke deeper forays into the worlds surrounding the artists as much as the artists themselves. Although the author is interested in the success and appeal of The Weeknd or Chance the Rapper, he is also equally—if not more—intrigued with the sociopolitical and existential issues that they each managed to evoke in present-day America. In witnessing Zoe Saldana’s 2016 portrayal of Simone, for instance, Abdurraqib thinks back to his own childhood playing on the floor of his family home absorbing the powerful emotions caused by his mother’s 1964 recording of “Nina Simone in Concert”—and remembering the relentlessly stigmatized soul who, unlike Saldana, could not wash off her blackness at the end of the day. In listening to Springsteen, the author is reminded of the death of Michael Brown and how “the idea of hard, beautiful, romantic work is a dream sold a lot easier by someone who currently knows where their next meal is coming from.” In all of Abdurraqib’s poetic essays, there is the artist, the work, the nation, and himself. The author effortlessly navigates among these many points before ultimately arriving at conclusions that are sometimes hopeful, often sorrowful, and always visceral.

Erudite writing from an author struggling to find meaning through music.

Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-937512-65-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Two Dollar Radio

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2017

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