Portrait of a Black Artist

Pinckney's 'novel' describes growing up in an era of mixed signals

THE name Darryl Pinckney may well be familiar to readers of Harper's, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Granta, The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice, and other prominent journals that have featured his reviews and personal reflections on the topics of race, gender, and cultural identity. "High Cotton" is his first book. It is billed as a novel, but seems more like a collection of autobiographical essays.

Calling a book a novel may be a way of allowing the author freedom to modify the autobiographical material he is using, but, unfortunately, it does not auto- matically transform a disjunctive series of hasty, impressionistic reminiscences into an organic and shapely whole.

The 12 chapters tracing the boyhood and youth of the unnamed narrator (there seems no reason not to refer to him as Pinckney) can be taken as a sort of "portrait of the artist" and also as an implicit discussion of the meaning of being black.

But, despite the intelligence and (one suspects) the originality of thought at work, the result is something of a missed opportunity, providing neither a cohesive discussion of blackness nor a clear picture of an individual sensibility.

It's a promising subject: the story of growing up amid a plethora of mixed signals and coming of age in an era fraught with changes and conflicting messages.

The narrator (like Pinckney) hails from Indianapolis. He's raised in the family tradition of "Negro Firsterism" - which is not the black equivalent of American isolationism, but rather the pride taken in being the first Negro to achieve a new distinction or penetrate a new barrier, whether it's being the first to graduate from Harvard or the first to move into a previously whites-only neighborhood.

Around the narrator, barriers are falling. The promise of the New Frontier is that his generation will finally have the opportunities previous generations were denied:

"There was nothing to be afraid of as long as we were polite and made good grades. After all, the future, back then, assembled as we were on the glossy edge of the New Frontier, belonged to us, the Also Chosen."

To this child of the future, the South of his grandparents was the "Old Country."

Although "You were not an immigrant" and "there were no foreign accents, weird holidays, or funny foods to live down ... still you did not belong to the great beyond out there; yet though you did not belong it was your duty as the Also Chosen to get up and act as though you belonged, especially when no one wanted you to."

The tension between the brave new world of the future and the legacy of past generations who prayed and fought for that future is encapsulated in the young narrator's offish relationship with his grandfather Eustace.

A highly educated minister whose lot in life has been to preach recondite sermons over the uneasy heads of congregations who would have preferred a more fervent, emotional pulpit style, Eustace is a man who never really fits in.

He is such a fixture of his grandson's life that the younger man takes him for granted. When Eustace's disgruntled second wife (known as the "beige stepgrandmother") tells Darryl he'd be surprised to hear what his grandfather really thinks of him, Darryl is shocked: "It had never occurred to me that he didn't dote on me or that, if he did, his feelings could change. An old man's loyalties were, I assumed, like a fixed income: barely enough for necessities ... but something to count on."

Outside the family, acceptance is even harder to find. The young narrator knows he's not like the "bad boys" who hang out on street corners bound for trouble, but he's also uncomfortable amid the "right" sort of black students who congregate at their own table during lunch period.

As a high school student regularly accused of being an Uncle Tom, he decides to "cop an attitude" and does a brief stint as an errand boy for a local cell of revolutionary black nationalists. Going to New York City to attend Columbia University, he tries to steep himself in the black culture of nearby Harlem but only succeeds in nearly falling victim to a con game.

The tone in which these adventures are narrated is so disaffected, and the author's elliptical, offhand style is so difficult to follow, that whatever interest the reader may have had in these events is likely to have evaporated in the course of attempting to read about them.

It's not that Pinckney lacks talent. He is quite capable of crisp and amusing passages, like his account of his teenage Anglophilia:

"My bicycle became a motorcycle and anyone whose feet dragged from the back seat was Rita Tushingham.

"I was a bloke, like those who dangled cigarettes at the proper angle in grainy black-and-white films, though I wasn't sure what a quid was."

Some of his "characters" are memorable, like Eustace, or the offbeat young black woman called Bargetta who mixes her own perfumes and gives them names like Maginot: Wear Maginot and get invaded, she quips.

On a more profound note, this same young woman reflects, "The farther you are from something, the more wonderful it seems. You're walking down a street in a foreign country and spot one light in a dark house and wish you could have that life. But if the window were yours you'd be plotting to break out of it."

But most of the book is simply not this good.

A lot more of the writing reads like this clumsily overwritten passage about a southern aunt: "Aunt Clara talked like someone who had made up her mind not to leave any footprints. The lotus hum of her intermittent conversation, like the current from the electric fans in opposite corners of the sun porch, subdued hours. Her odd singsong pursued the smell of butane from my mother's lighter."

The characters float by like ships in the night, nothing much happens, the verbal fireworks fizzle, and the reader is left with the feeling of having spent time with someone who was trying harder to seem clever than to write a meaningful book.

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