PHILADELPHIA FIRE by John Edgar Wideman
Kirkus Star


A Novel
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Wideman's latest novel picks up where the title story in last year's Fever left off--it's a dense and rage-filled meditation on the bombing of a houseful of blacks in West Philadelphia in 1985. The first half of this intense, poetic narrative concerns one man's personal struggle to find a rumored survivor of the conflagration--a boy named Simba Muntu, whose fate somehow seems linked to his own. For the past ten years, Cudjoe has enjoyed self-exile on a Greek island, trying to forget his string of failures as father, husband, friend, and Afro-American. Having sat out the political struggles of the 70's, he's become obsessed with the fire in Philly, and the image of a screaming, naked boy running from the flames. Cudjoe's research includes interviews with a former member of the so-called MOVE cult; a mouthpiece for the mayor, who was one of the handful of blacks at Penn with Cudjoe; and with a bunch of hoopsters courtside in West Philly. Midway through the novel, however, the fictive perscoa breaks down, transforming Cudjoe into a sort of Everyblackman, including the author himself. Wideman's discursive narrative reflects on his effort to stop time with this ostensible fiction, pausing long enough to consider the tragedy of his adolescent son's incarceration for tour. der. There's also the nagging suspicion that, in this mix of fact and fiction, he's just writing "clever, irresponsible, fanciful accounts of what never happened, never will." Which brings him to J.B., the city's source for information on the MOVE household. Now a "funky derelict" in Center City, this crazy, Rasta-fied street-person indulges a paranoid vision of genocide while hustling for quarters until some white kids set him on fire. Plagued by doubt and guilt, Cudjoe never Finds the boy--but at a vigil for the victims he does pledge, "Never again." Ultimately, this is a tale of survival in which the author himself finds redemption in his art. With its dark and cynical humor, this metafiction will disturb as many readers as it dazzles.
Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
ISBN: 061850964X
Page count: 212pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1990


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