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 A worthwhile, complex commentary on the author's two-year sojourn in Harlem. Harris has built a career on being an ``insider-outsider'' ethnographer, first as a black American in Africa and then in the rural Deep South (Native Stranger, 1992; South of Haunted Dream, 1993). He now follows these with a similar foray into Harlem, an attempt to witness another aspect of the black American experience. The narrative is engaging, well-written, and sometimes insightful, but it stops short of extraordinary because of Harris's own ambiguous role. The book opens with a scene that he returns to again and again: He is standing at his window late in the night, watching intently as a man across the street beats a woman. This scene and others indicate that Harris is an observer who has made a conscious choice to live in Harlem, to not have a telephone, to deplete his funds. He can, as he himself remarks, leave any time--a fact that gives the narrative an almost anthropological aloofness. As time progresses, he does begin to initiate more conversations on the street, to take a vested interest in his surroundings, and in doing so, he finds much still to be celebrated in Harlem: a young mother who spends late nights caring for the neighborhood's children; a native son who, after a successful law career, returns to Harlem to help other youngsters. Harris is changed by these encounters and inspired to refuse hopelessness and, ultimately, offers a writing class at an after-school program. The book's title becomes something of an unintentional double entendre: As an artist Harris has successfully captured the ``still life'' of Harlem, a portrait of hopelessness and urban decay. But by the end he has subtly convinced the reader that there is still, in fact, life in Harlem. His own small transformations become his most compelling witness to that stubborn life. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-4851-0
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1996