Page turners: Strivers Row

Two black men's lives intersect one memorable Harlem summer in Kevin Baker's ("Paradise Alley") fine new novel. Jonah Dove, a minister who is light-skinned enough to be mistaken for white, is torn between his spiritual duties and a desire to leave his race behind forever. He's saved from a beating by Malcolm Little, a train employee about to become first a small-time hustler, and eventually, Malcolm X.

Baker uses a wealth of detail to re-create Harlem in 1943, where the war is overshadowed by the residents' personal despair and news of lynchings and riots. Both men's histories are riveting - and all the more impressive since one is fictional and the other drawn from life. Dove, constantly overshadowed by a preacher-father who doesn't believe in God, makes a gripping spiritual journey during the course of that summer. "I give 'em Jesus because that's all I got," Milton Dove, who battled for his congregation against racism and poverty, tells his astonished son.

But, while the jacket for "Strivers Row" trumpets Little's future as the civil rights leader, the only clue that the teenage drug-dealer/numbers runner/pimp is going to end up anywhere besides prison comes from some not terribly compelling visions and his reading about the Nation of Islam. That limited window makes Baker's take on Malcolm X more a detailed snapshot than a full-blown portrait. Grade: B+

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