The noted African-American author pays homage to psychiatrist/activist Frantz Fanon, best known for his anti-colonial classic The Wretched of the Earth, in this quasi-fictional meditation that incorporates bits of Wideman’s own history.
Wideman has been mulling over his “Fanon project” for years; see the story “Fanon” in the collection God’s Gym (2005). He is evidently looking for a way in which he and his alter ego Thomas, the book’s protagonist, can connect to the transcendent spirit of the black Frenchman, who died in 1961, and have that spirit infuse the African-American struggle against racism. First things first though. A severed head is delivered by UPS to Thomas, who is writing Fanon’s biography. The head is accompanied by a note, a quote from one of Fanon’s works. Is it Fanon’s head, magically restored? Is the author playing head games? Thomas eventually tosses it in the river, but the questions linger disquietingly. Wideman makes the most direct connection between Fanon and Homewood, the Pittsburgh ghetto where Wideman grew up, when he juxtaposes Fanon’s questioning (in his role as psychiatrist) of two Algerian boys, accused killers, with an imaginary Homewood teenager who in the blink of an eye becomes a murder victim. The Homewood teenager is memorialized by an old lady, possibly Wideman’s mother, in a monologue that is a small miracle; nothing else equals its intensity. Wideman also conjectures that his mother had some tenuous contact with Fanon in the Bethesda, Md., hospital where Fanon died; as for his life, there are only snippets, sure to puzzle the uninitiated. Sometimes Fanon appears tangentially. At other times he disappears altogether as Wideman/Thomas riff on current highs and lows, prompting the cry: “This thinking all fine and dandy but it’s not the book…” No indeed.
Both those familiar and those unfamiliar with Fanon’s work are likely to be bemused by this strange potpourri.