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The basic material here--a couple of crucial days in the life of a black college senior--is more suited to a short story than full-length fiction. But Branch has filled out the few incidents with a flood of mini-flashbacks, and the result is a decent, if undistinguished, first novel: intensely earnest, sometimes inept or tedious in its belabored post-adolescent angst, but occasionally sharp or affecting. ""Jackie"" (Andre) Montgomery is in his room at a midwestern college circa 1974--worrying about his supportive mother back in Newark (she's been ill) and stewing about his erratic girlfriend Justine, a high-class black who at this moment is waiting for him to take her to a posh party. And while wallowing in his depression, Jackie thinks about his childhood, his adolescence, his ""problematical"" life: the self-righteously religious, doom-saying aunt who ruled the father-less household he grew up in (""she was the reason why he was taking courses in religion. He wanted to understand what she held so dear and one day shove it down her throat""); the time he felt deathly sick as a child, sure the ""Lord had struck him down""; the time he killed a rat with chum Mumbles; his affair with a N.Y.C. prostitute; his confusions about black identity, exacerbated by Justine and by classmate Jello (who's now ""half-black, half-white""); his anxiety over getting a job after graduation. Understandably, then, Jackie feels ""all alone and out of control."" But he finally leaves his room, visiting a swaggering friend named Blue--who tells him that Justine is rumored to be incest-ing with her father. And then, after a brief stop at the party with Justine, Jackie discovers that the rumors are true . . . just as news comes (the timing is amateurishly neat) that his mother is near death from cancer. So, in the book's final, mostly affecting pages, Jackie says goodbye to ""Mother Queen"" (an old black lady who has befriended him) and jets home only to see his mother die--in a scene that's undermined by a sudden shift into quasi-symbolism, with the angel of death flying around the hospital room. Branch's narrative craft throughout is crude, depending on awkward present/past shifts and overdone effects (as when Jackie's radio just happens to be playing ""Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"" at a teary moment). But the dialogue is generally strong; some of the writing is sneakily eloquent (""Everything that was wasted in Jackie's house seemed to have a mouth that told his aunt who did it""); and there's nearly enough sincerity and immediacy in Jackie's small world to compensate for Branch's missteps and limitations.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1981
Publisher: Marek--dist. by Putnam