Tomes for the Tote bag
FOR those who feel too pressured to read much fiction throughout the rest of the year, summer brings the time and leisure to settle down on the beach or in the backyard and lose yourself in the world of a writer's imagination.Skip to next paragraph
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The new collection of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (Pantheon, 432 pp., $25) includes all the stories he has thus far written: those from his two previous collections ("Damballah" and "Fever"), plus 11 new ones under the heading "All Stories Are True."
Although most of Wideman's work is rooted in Homewood, the black section of his native Pittsburgh of which he writes so vividly and passionately, his range of style, form, and subject matter goes beyond that. "What He Saw" takes readers to a black township in South Africa, where a group of visiting journalists confront not only the violence and suffering they see, but questions about their own responsibility in choosing what to report.
"Hostages" ponders contemporary political issues and the value of human life. And "Surfiction" is a slyly entertaining parody of postmodern criticism in which Wideman mocks the antics of its high priests and his own previous susceptibility to them: "Which list," as he remarks at one point, "further discloses a startling coincidence or perhaps the making of a scandal - one man working both sides of the Atlantic as a writer and critic explaining and praising his fiction as he creates it: Barth Barthes Bart helme."
Still, the heart of this collection is Homewood, and the characters based on Wideman's family, friends, and neighbors. It's a tough, raunchy world of appealing little boys who too often grow up to be swaggering bad guys, whose misguided need to play out a role lands them in prison; a world of devoted, loving mothers and quietly dignified grandmothers who have lived through experiences too powerful to put into words. But Wideman puts it all into words: slangy, elegant, harsh, tender, funny, angry, and elo quent.
One book I looked forward to reading this summer was the new novel by the Nigerian-born writer Ben Okri, whose collection of short stories, "Stars of the New Curfew," made a powerful impression on me when I read it in the summer of 1989.
The Famished Road (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 500 pp., $22.50), winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction in 1991, is a novel of epic proportions about a little boy growing up amid the squalor, violence, poverty, and unquenchable vitality of a Nigerian village. Azaro, whose name is deliberately reminiscent of Lazarus, believes that he is a "spirit child" who can still remember the happy realm of immortality where souls are said to dwell before birth (a concept similar to the Platonic-Christian vis ion of the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan's poem "The Retreat," beginning "Happy those early days! when I/ Shined in my angel infancy").
Remembering the peace and harmony of the spirit world makes Azaro more than usually prone to retreat from the misery of the particular earthly existence he has been born into. Yet, although he has several nearly fatal experiences even as an infant, something keeps pulling him back into the "real world" with all its hardships.
What Azaro, his parents, and the other villagers must continually confront is not so much the clash of two ways of life, traditional and modern, but a chaotic-seeming free-for-all, a struggle for existence amid an unpredictable atmosphere of superstition and knavery, repression and violence.