Well-made novel sifts black history; The Chaneysville Incident, by David Bradley. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95.
At the center of this complicated, ambitious novel stands a formidably intelligent and forbidding character. He's John Washington, a black who has raised himself up from his rural origins in western Pennsylvania and become a professor of history at a university in Philadelphia, where he lies with Judith, a psychologist who is white.
Their combative emotional relationship is further strained when a call from home takes John back to a reunion with those origins, and a compulsion to solve mysteries that have burdened him for years. The bulk of the book, while providing those solutions, also confronts the question of how John Washington will go on living in this world the white man has made.
What calls him home is the illness of the old man who had been both John's mentor and the devoted friend of his late father, Moses Washington. Before the man's death, "Old Jack" slyly taunts the prodigal intellectual ("Your blood's got thin from livin' inside a house all the time, with no time in the woods"); and his stories of bygone times reawaken John's wish to learn more about the mysterious death, years earlier, of his solitary, tight-lipped father.
We overhear the story as John, having pieced it together from numerous sources, tells it to the questioning Judith. It's a complex tale covering several generations, including a slave riot, and climaxing in the "incident" named in the title.
Having re-created the story, having felt, and livedm it, John understands some things --his mother's still-subservient life, his younger brother's wasted life and absurd early death. He understands, and does not forgive. At the story's end, the distance between John and the sympathetic Judith is as great as ever, perhaps greater. There's the challenge.
The truculence and passion are integral to the novel. Bradley employs a sophisticated past-present structure, built on a sequence of sometimes interlocking flashbacks. The pace is slow, the digressions frequent, and John Washington's professorial sedulousness an hauteur are often grating.
All the material in the book is exposition, really --takingly communicated: it represents nothing less than a triumph that this basically undramatic material is almost always suspenseful and fascinating.
This is a book that knows exactly what it's doing. Even the literary echoes (of Faulkner, Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Warren's "All the King's Men," among others) ring mockingly, exude a bracing irony.
John Washington's complaints about the limitations of history perfectly express the conviction that black people must,m by virtue of their experience and their suffering, perceive the world differently than do whites. And, when we finally reach it, the many-layered dream of Africa that lies at the heart of the book is entirely convincing as religious mystery -- which we have to work our way into knowing, because it was not, could never have been, a part of us.
That seems to me the ultimate challenge, in a novel that is filled with them and powerfully enriched by them. For me, "the Chaneysville Incident" rivals Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" as the best novel about the black experience in America since Ellison's "Invisible Man" nearly 30 years ago.