Sunday, March 17, 2013

Baldwin Blowout!

The BF and I were watching clips of "Totally Biased" online and a drag queen made a joke about the Stonewall Riots that I didn't understand. She said, "And I think James Baldwin was there, too," and the studio audience laughed and laughed. Every schoolyard instinct in my headspace lit up like a Chanukah Bush: everyone is laughing and I don't know why, so it must be a joke at my expense!

So the BF loaned me his copy of "The Devil Finds Work" to convince me the TV people weren't mocking me, and we find ourselves here today. I'll be reviewing "The Devil Finds Work" (1976), "Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone" (1968), and "Giovanni's Room" (1956), all works by writer, activist and world traveler, James Baldwin.

Baldwin (1924 to 1987) was an important literary voice in the black civil rights movement. You may be familiar with Baldwin's more famous works, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and "Notes from a Native Son," both of which deal with the experience of being black in America. He was also gay, which explains the "Totally Biased" reference that confused me so, and brings me "Giovanni's Room."

This was only Baldwin's second published book, so he was pushing the boundaries of social mores in literature right out of the gate. The main character is an American man living in Paris in the 1950s. He is engaged to another American, but she goes out of town for a while and he moves in with a young Italian man, Giovanni. The book opens with the narrator sitting up all night, getting drunk in a small rented house on near the coast because Giovanni is going to be executed in Paris the next day. The narrator backtracks from there, relating how he fell in love with but ultimately betrayed Giovanni and left him in the state that lead to his execution. It's a story of shame, love and lost, not exactly good times, but an interesting read that provides a frank and honest description of homosexuality from a time when the topic was still very taboo.

"Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone" is also about homosexuality--or rather, bisexuality--but mostly it's about art, specifically the experience of the black artist in America. The main character of the book is a very famous black actor who suffers a heart attack on stage, which leads him to consider the life choices he's made and the people he's met along the way. I like this book because of the gulf it describes between the artist as an individual and the artist as he exists as a symbol for his audience. The main character struggles with his desire to live an unorthodox life that is true to his chosen craft, because it is at odds with the expectations his family and community has for him. They want him to be a preacher, like his older brother, or at least get a regular job and raise a family of his own, while he would rather travel, be on stage, and fuck a lot of people (wouldn't we all). Not that his vision of himself as an artist is perfect either, though. He has to struggle for many years, playing the roles of servants and bootlicks on stage because those are the only roles available to black actors, before he gets his break. I really enjoyed and admired how "Tell Me" so thoroughly explored the profound ambivalence that comes with being an artist and a public figure, especially as the artist realizes that the things he holds most dear are the things that most alienate him from others.

"The Devil Finds Work" was the first book of Baldwin's I read, as I mentioned earlier, but chronologically it comes last. It's not really a book at all, but an extended essay on the portrayal of blackness in American film. It was very dense and took the the longest to read of the three, even though it's the shortest. Unfortunately, I'm sure a lot of the essay's brilliance was lost on me, because I haven't seen any of the movies referenced in it (except for "The Exorcist"). The BF writes in the margins of all of his books, so there were plenty of notes to help me along, but I'm hard-pressed now to remember any of the points Baldwin made.

I'm not what you'd call a film buff. Movies unsettle me for their ability to deliver a huge emotional wallop in a relatively short amount of time. I prefer novels, which give me space and time to inhabit the characters' worlds and absorb their struggles; or television episodes, for the the same reason. So it a weird way, "The Devil Finds Work" was a pretty good way for me to explore the deeper meanings of film without having to put myself through the experience (ordeal?) of actually watching the movies.

Since this was a special post, I'm not going to grade any of the books. I'll just end with stating that James Baldwin is one of the Great American Authors and you should read his work if you get the chance (not the later stuff though, my local librarian told me that his last three novels were awful).

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