Plunging into Life

The Car Thief

by Theodore Weesner
Random House, 370 pp., $6.95

The Needle's Eye

by Margaret Drabble
Knopf, 369 pp., $6.95

By all rights, John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman should have been much worse than it is. Its method is documentary, its aim is consciousness raising, not the loftiest of fictional ways and goals. Williams has, apparently, gone over every inch of ground where, at any time in American history, black soldiers have fought. As he did so, he tried to imagine not only the men he knew had been there but also a binding single figure, a soldier named Abraham Blackman, who fought in all the battles, from Lexington to New Orleans to Petersburg to Fort Sill in the Indian wars, to San Juan Hill, to France, Spain, Italy, Korea, and Vietnam. As the novel opens Blackman is wounded in Vietnam trying to shield some of his company from slaughter, and the rest is his dreams and hallucinations of his role in all the earlier battles.

As a novel the book doesn’t even begin to count. Blackman himself may not be superhuman, but he is strictly a fantasy figure: huge, strong, brave, serious, always right, always able to speak the deeper ironies. His women, most of whom are named Mimosa Rogers, are always strong, sexy, eager, and tough-minded. The episodes, though many and varied, always carry the same message: whites are always willing to use blacks in battle, always afraid of the power blacks might have if properly rewarded for their service, always willing to find ways to ignore, degrade, or simply kill black soldiers who become a problem. So Williams has given himself practically no fictional room to move in. The coins have to keep falling exactly as Williams calls them.

But, given this, Captain Blackman is not without merit. At the beginning, when Blackman finds himself walking toward Lexington with Peter Salem, he says, “This is 1775 and you’re on your way to Lexington because a cat named Paul Revere rode through these parts last night talkin about the British’re coming.” It looks as if a long read is ahead. But soon Williams takes Blackman’s foreknowledge away from him, and it all begins to move more smoothly. It reads less like “You Are There” in jive talk. Williams’s travels have given him a clear sense of the history of the army, and why it acted as it did, and he keeps showing the way it is racist, though not always bigoted. Whites assume the rightness of their history and their institutions, yet in moments of crisis, when they declare blacks expendable, they can see the folly and irony of their behavior as well as the blacks can. Though of course they very seldom try to do anything about it.

At the beginning of the Second World War, for instance, a high-level meeting is called to decide what to do about the race riots that are breaking out at army and navy bases all over the country. A Southerner says: “Now, goddammit, you just cain’t take northern nigras and station em in the South,” and someone answers:…

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