Short stories reach across decades of racial upheaval and social transformation to reaffirm what remains human and vulnerable in all of us.
McPherson (1943-2016) was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, which he received for his 1977 collection of short stories, Elbow Room. Nine years earlier, the Savannah-born McPherson, who held degrees from both Harvard Law School and the University of Iowa (whose storied Writers Workshop he later directed), published this, his first and only other short-fiction collection. Upon reading this new edition, it somehow isn’t enough to say that the stories “hold up well.” Their blend of grittiness and sophistication, compassion and common sense, measured observation and melancholy humor can still profoundly move and illuminate. “Gold Coast”—which was later included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike—manages to compress whole contradictions of personality, ethnicity, and class into the seemingly discursive but poignant reminiscences of a young black janitor’s apprenticeship to his building’s embittered and elderly Irish superintendent. With similar incisiveness and sensitivity, the title novella dissects the vagaries of interracial romance. McPherson’s keen ear is perhaps most evident in “A Solo Song: For Doc,” which uses the irascible first-person voice of a 60-something Pullman waiter to recount the life of a similarly testy co-worker whose supreme competence and fierce dedication couldn’t protect him from bigotry or arbitrary dismissal. “Of Cabbages and Kings” evokes some of the darkly comedic paranoia of the 1960s while “An Act of Prostitution” puts the edgier comedy of the legal system up front. The collection remains an exemplar of humane, tough-minded grace while anticipating much of the trenchant, boundary-breaching fiction by young African-American writers emerging so far this century.
Half a century ago, Ralph Ellison was excited by the prodigious talent on display in this collection, and it can still galvanize contemporary readers.