He’s black. He’s gay. He’s a recovering substance abuser. And he’s running around Berlin during the 1980s. For the most part, Pinckney's novel succeeds at being as intriguing as its premise.
His name is Jed and, like the protagonist of Pinckney’s 1992 debut, High Cotton, he's a young, ferociously intelligent product of an accomplished African-American family based in the Midwest; in this case, Chicago, where he finds himself constricted and chafing. Restless for adventure and reinvention, Jed seeks both in West Berlin during the final decade of its walled-off existence. Invoking the name of Christopher Isherwood, he declares at the start that gay sex, even with the advent of AIDS, is what beckons him to Germany. “Berlin,” he says, “meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” He spends several summers in Germany, staying with his cousin Cello, an imposing, imperious classical pianist. By the time he decides to stay there for good, Jed has gone into rehab and fights off temptations to reacquaint himself with white wine and designer drugs. At one point in his odyssey, he works as a writer for a celebrated architect whose ambitious proposals to rehabilitate whole sections of Berlin mirror Jed’s own attempt to forge a bold new identity. Meanwhile, he seeks out Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with black soldiers; engages with the burgeoning, multicultural nightlife in seedy, neo-bohemian bars; falls in and out of love, sometimes requited, sometimes not. Those looking for a straightforward narrative path toward self-discovery will not find it here. The story shifts back and forth from Chicago to Berlin, from Jed’s adolescence to adulthood. What sustains your attention throughout these sometimes-disorienting transitions is Pinckney’s dolefully witty and incisively observant voice, whether describing the quirks of his hero’s family (“When the going gets rough, make pancakes,” Jed’s father advises) or evoking the sights, sounds, and even smells of West Berlin, “the involuntary island, that petri dish of romantic radicalism.”
Pinckney’s discursive novel, coming across as if it were a late-20th-century hipster version of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Marte Laurids Brigge, typifies an era in which inventive, idiosyncratic styles flourish anew in African-American writing.