John Edgar Wideman’s tales are vivid recollections of life in Pittsburgh and plenty of different locations
Pittsburgh, what a generator of loneliness and commotion. Its predominantly African-American Hill District was the driving force of the playwright August Wilson, who paid such tender and respectful attention to life there.
The indispensable John Edgar Wideman was raised not far, further east, in the Homewood neighborhood. His post-industrial Pittsburgh is the location of many of his novels and memoirs, and its texture and sociology burn a hole in the stories in “You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories, 1981-2018”.
When Wideman was a young man, Homewood was littered with burned-out shops and bent parking meters. he compares houses with rotten teeth. “Somebody should dig a deep ditch out of Homewood Avenue,” he wrote in a story, “and just go on and push the row houses and boarded-up shop windows into the hole. Bury everything. “
But the pickup basketball games are intense. The pirate game is on the radio. The streets and their impressive names shimmer “like the first notes of a monk’s solo”. Some of the spirits are benign. (“You can almost hear music from Porgy’s record store.”) The healing wealth of family life and family history makes unbearable experiences bearable.
Wideman left Homewood when he went to the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship. He then studied at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Most of the time, his storytellers also got out. But they remain in close emotional contact with the tingling, alienation, clowning, caution, self-distrust, and self-satire that came with growing up poor and black in Pittsburgh.
Wideman is now approaching 80, and this is the first anthology of his short story since “The Stories of John Edgar Wideman” was published in 1992. This book brought together all of the stories in his first two collections, “Damballah” (1981) and “Damballah” together “Fever” (1989), along with several new ones.
It is a mistake to try to put Wideman’s biography too neatly on top of his fiction. In an indelible memoir, Brothers and Keepers (1984), he wrote of his younger brother Robby, who was sentenced to life in prison for being an accomplice in a murder during a botched robbery.
Robby’s experience influences some of the stories gathered here. “Solitary” tells of a mother who takes the bus for hours to see her son and of the sad outrage she is confronted with when she arrives in prison.
Wideman’s narrators are aware that a brother’s life could easily have been their own, if fate had been different. Wideman’s, along with Jack Kerouac, whose brother Gerard died when they were both children and whom Kerouac believed had copied when he was writing, is one of the great, brother-infested voices in literature. And next to John Gardner, who killed his younger brother Gilbert at the age of 6 by accidentally running over him with a cultipacker. And Anthony Trollope, whose older brother Arthur died of tuberculosis at the age of 12.
Not all of Wideman’s stories take place in Homewood. Many have a cosmopolitan sensibility and move easily between places like Manhattan, Paris, Philadelphia and Cape Town, South Africa. One case involves a writer who is plagued by losses he can’t put a finger on and who is determined to jump off Williamsburg Bridge. Wideman’s joke is undervalued. In this story, the man fears that by suicide he will miss his agent’s birthday party.
Another is about an information trip to Cape Town, a cultural exchange that gets shaky when a guide makes the wrong turn. Another, Who Invented the Jump Shot, is about the earliest days of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Why not try to make money playing basketball? the narrator ponders. “He noticed how much money white people will pay to see Negroes do what white people can’t or want or should, but always wanted, especially after seeing Negroes do it.” He adds: “Get on, ladies and gentlemen. Watch Jimbo Crow fly. “
Other stories are in dialogue here with historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown as well as with Jean-Michel Basquiat and the collage artist Romare Bearden, who spent part of his childhood in Pittsburgh.
Six or eight of the stories in “You Made Me Love You” are destroyers. Read Across the Wide Missouri if you want to see what this author can do. Others, especially later in his career, meander.
Occasionally, Wideman seems to be almost deliberately pushing his readers away, as if he were Miles Davis playing solo with his back to the audience. He doesn’t always want to be understood too well.
No matter where we are in these stories, the mind of the author and therefore the reader seems to be turned like a weathercock in the direction of Homewood. Three of Wideman’s books, “Damballah” and the novels “Hiding Place” and “Sent for You Yesterday”, are sometimes referred to as “The Homewood Trilogy” and published together under that title in 1985. (Wideman has said he feels a little uncomfortable with this grouping since he didn’t think of the books as a trilogy.)
Wideman’s narrators are often invaded by memories. In his desire for the everyday, he uses foods with profound effects. Sometimes there is the feeling of scraping together a little luck. Popping beans sound like knuckles cracking. At other times, the news is almost existentially grim. There’s the father who comes home after helping a white man slaughter a pig with only half a bucket of courage for Christmas Eve dinner.
There are the scrambled eggs that a boy eats in front of the white family, for whom his grandmother cooks and cleans. Angry at being on display, his sensitive heart scalded, yet he is “determined not to disappoint anyone, not to spill food or make my mouth greasy, or talk like a little ignorant Pickaninny”.
Another of Wideman’s narrators analyzes the cultural stereotypes surrounding the watermelon. “I was too scared to enjoy watermelon,” he says. “Too self-confident. I allow people to deprive me of simple pleasures. “
Wideman’s stories have a cautious, brooding mind, a lonely intelligence. You have a real but stunted affection for America. He lifts the problems of consciousness, including the fragile contingency of our existence.
“Crowds surprise him,” we read about one of his characters. “Busy swarms of people who haven’t heard the news. Hey, he wants to scream. Listen up, everyone. It’s not just about me. Each of you have to go. “