Like Steam From a City Grate

PHILADELPHIA FIRE. By John Edgar Wideman, New York: Henry Holt, 199 pp., $18.95 NEAR the end of John Edgar Wideman's ``Philadelphia Fire'' is a rap-style revision of Shakespeare's ``The Tempest,'' which Wideman claims is central to the meaning of the whole novel. William Shakespeare is referred to as ``the master blaster, bad swan from Avon, number-one voice and people's choice, scratcher, and mixer and sweet jam faixer, ripsnorter, and exhorter, cool as a refrigerator, prestidigitator.''

In an attempt at role modeling, Cudjoe, the book's fictional protagonist, points out to his inner-city African-American students that while the famous Elizabethan romance sympathizes with Prospero, who has been cheated out of his dukedom, it gives tacit approval to his invading and expropriating Caliban's island.

Indeed, claims Cudjoe, the bard has represented Caliban as a third-world native, a lowly savage ripe for exploitation, a dark, deformed creature who is resistant to education and possessed of an unwonted sexual appetite. Not even in the felicitous epilogue does anyone think to restore to him the island which is really his.

Wideman implies that it is just this assumption that nonwhites are inherently inferior and therefore deserving of no rights, which brought about the Philadelphia Move fire and the reaction of silence and oppressiveness that seemed to condone it.

On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police department, in an attempt to dislodge a commune of Move radicals from their home at 6221 Osage Street, dropped a bomb on the rowhouse roof and surrounded the building with sharpshooters ready to kill anyone who tried to escape the ensuing blaze. Following police orders, 150 firefighters - manning 37 pieces of equipment - allowed the fire to consume 52 other buildings before getting it under control. All Move residents were immolated except one adult, who was convicted of assault, and one child.

Wideman's book explores not so much the causes and effects of the Move massacre as the Caliban consciousness of Philadelphia's black community. By presenting an aggregate of urban types who populate the inner-city, Wideman portrays the spiritual vacuum he equates with Caliban's lot and that of many contemporary blacks.

Wideman's street people act and sound authentic; they are scatologically eloquent. Political pragmatist Timbo, for example, explains his disenchantment with the ideals of the 60's: ``We had them on their knees man. Begging and pulling out their hair. Tried everything to put us down but we were strong. We were righteous. Couldn't nothing stop us. But our own damn selves. They let us strut around like we owned the Johnson. We was superbad. On the tube. In the movies. They just let us be for a while.''

Scattered almost randomly throughout the book are voices from the street, hard-bitten, articulate, incisive. Ex-office worker Margaret Jones explains why she threw off her life of drudgery and submitted to slavery as a member of the group that promised to overturn the entire system. Political pragmatist Timbo, Cudjoe's former college classmate, brazenly admits that his political perks are paid for from the deep and dirty pockets of greed.

As an educated black writer, Cudjoe is hounded by guilt. He has married a white woman, ruined the marriage, and lost contact with his children. A son writes to him from behind prison bars. He becomes something of a hesitant and self-deprecating J. Alfred Prufrock; his self-expression is forestalled while he postpones the facing of his own demons. At times, the story threatens to become the ultimate literary solipsism - a book about the writing of itself.

Somewhere near the middle of the book, the novel makes a break from conventional narrative form. Cudjoe's search for the sole child survivor of the holocaust peters out, and for a time Cudjoe himself disappears from the pages of the book. Suddenly, we have John Edgar Wideman himself speaking in the first person and displaying an assortment of letters, quotes, and incidents that somehow splay the story into different levels of meaning. Like the stream-of-consciousness associations throughout the book, there are subtle links between these sundry pieces, but the imaginative leaps have suddenly become longer, and Wideman makes no bones about hopping right out of the fictional mode altogether.

What he seems to be doing here is asking the reader to give up the luxuries of conventional fiction, such as structure, a feeling that things are designed and under control, and a satisfying sense of completion. Arguably, in a story that is centered around such a dire event, these niceties would be the literary equivalent of Louis Armstrong's singing, ``Oh, what a wonderful world.''

Instead, the novel's form itself does to the reader what the inner-city environment does to its residents. We feel the falling away of expectations and the emptying out of a sense of control and direction. As readers, we surrender to the tenuousness of the author's personal associations, which wind and spiral randomly like steam from a city grate. If the book's general ambience were described in musical terms it would be more like that of a muted, understated trumpet solo floating against the horizon from a lonely fire escape, - perhaps that of a Miles Davis figure, slouched, sulky, eye-shaded.

Wideman asks us to unlearn our assumptions, and he writes an un-novel. All this fracturing of literary convention does not make for a smooth, easy read, but as one of Wideman's characters says, ``Technique, technique is truth, bucko.''

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