A FATHER’S LAW by Richard Wright


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When Richard Wright (1908–60) died, much too young and essentially a stranger in his own country who had found a more congenial “home” in postwar Paris, he was remembered, if at all, as a transitional figure. Between the handful of respected black American authors (such as Charles W. Chesnutt, Claude Mackay and Langston Hughes) and the later, more abrasive achievements of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman and others, there were Wright’s major books. His powerhouse debut novel Native Son, the bitter short stories collected as Uncle Tom’s Children, the impassioned autobiography Black Boy—all now enshrined in the Library of America—bore electrifying witness to the enduring relevance of a writer who made it his life’s mission to dramatize his people's struggles against racist intolerance and injustice.

Now comes A Father’s Law, a never-before-published, unfinished novel. The book was written during Wright’s last illness, which perhaps explains its ungainly, virtually inchoate state. In an introduction to the work, Wright’s daughter, Julia, candidly describes it as a “faulty, sketchy, sometimes repetitive draft.” The book attempts something genuinely new in his oeuvre—a metaphysical crime thriller—and it eerily echoes its author’s own experience.

The story begins when veteran black Chicago policeman Rudolph “Ruddy” Turner is summoned to his station late at night and informed that he has been appointed Police Chief. The complication: A series of unsolved murders in the “independent municipality” of Brentwood Park, a hotbed of gambling, prostitution and worse, has become a number-one police priority.

Ruddy’s problems are exacerbated at home, in his troubled relationship with his college-age son Tommy, a gifted student and athlete whose renegade intellect questions the legitimacy of laws his father is sworn to uphold—and gradually raises Ruddy’s suspicions that Tommy is implicated in the murders. For Tommy, like the young Richard Wright, has broken off his engagement to a girl afflicted with congenital syphilis (the story is briefly told in Michel Fabre’s 1993 biography The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright). Was Tommy driven to crime, his father agonizes? Or was he attempting to seek punishment he felt he deserved, even for crimes he did not commit?

Wright did not live to resolve the dilemma thus created. Furthermore, A Father’s Law is astonishingly awkwardly written, and would surely not have been offered for publication without major revisions. Still, it lurks in Wright’s harsh oeuvre: a perhaps impenetrable enigma. We cannot salute it as major, even as significant work. But we can understand why Julia Wright thought we needed to see it.

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-134916-4
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins
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