Humorous, provocative tale of a young black writer racing past personal and historical demons.
In his debut, Walker (English/Bridgewater State Coll.) deftly subverts expectations of urban angst and braggadocio. The author begins on Chicago’s South Side. As a wannabe gangster, Walker learned that his friendly neighborhood cocaine dealer was shot to death an hour after giving him drugs on credit. The author then backtracks from this violent opening to limn his unusual childhood. His parents were both blind, but also followers of a doomsday cult which assured the youthful Walker that the end of the world was near. When this failed to materialize, the nerdy, disillusioned adolescent fell under the sway of his raffish brothers and thuggish neighbors. They all seemed headed down a familiar path of degradation. Somehow, however, Walker always gravitated toward situations that offered opportunities for redemption, despite the temptations of cocaine, alcohol, abusive women and pointless street violence. As an older student at a local community college, Walker received advice from one of his teachers to transfer to the University of Iowa. Once there, he felt baffled by the school’s Midwestern snobbery and, more generally, by race—his encounters with whites and fellow blacks often ended in wounded puzzlement. Walker’s fresh take on the labyrinth of urban race relations is one of his memoir’s great pleasures. “I came to believe, at a very early age,” he writes, “that in order to succeed I would have to beat the system through the mastery of some criminal enterprise, or join it in the form of a Sambo, a sell-out, an Oreo.” After acceptance and acclaim at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Walker got married and became a father, yet continued to fear that success, as both a writer and a black man, would always elude him. The book’s somber concluding chapters, in which he recalls the many companions from his confused youth who are now dead or in jail, clarifies how such fears are entirely warranted.
Several cuts above standard memoirs.