A clutch of early stories from the poet, playwright, and provocateur, infused with jazz and informed by racial alienation.
First published in 1967, this debut story collection by Baraka (1934-2014) displays his roots in the Beat movement: run-on sentences abound, as do observations of smoky clubs and hipster friends. (“I had a little cup full of wine a murderer friend of mine made me drink, so I drank it and tossed the cup in the air, then fell in line behind the last wild horn man.”) But it’s also evident that Baraka was eager to break out on his own and find a style and theme that reflected his particular sense of African-American life. On that front, these stories are best read as experiments in how to convey conflicting moods: by turns his style is satirical (black college students mock a professor who insists “we are white and featureless under this roof”), vengeful (in “Unfinished,” a character fantasizes about strangling a Southern governor), or philosophically resigned (“reality was something I was convinced I could not have”). Baraka’s prose, often loose and abstracted, sometimes gets over on sheer energy—“The Screamers,” set in a jazz joint, ends in a run-on crescendo of racial violence spilling out onto the streets. But he could make a story work in a more conventional and muted form, as in “Going Down Slow,” in which a man’s jealousy over his wife’s affair prompts a violent act. Alas, there are also glimpses of the casual homophobia that, along with his anti-Semitic remarks, would in time make Baraka a lightning rod and a relatively isolated literary figure. Those retrograde intonations make many stories feel dated. But the book is worth reading to see the way he feverishly tinkered with ways to explore a multiplicity of black experiences.
An intense and button-pushing collection.