Secrets of an Underground Man

Darryl Pinckney, London, 1991
Dominique Nabokov
Darryl Pinckney, London, 1991

Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland begins and ends with a book, a book its protagonist Jed Goodfinch tells us from the start was “the wrong book”: Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, whose vision of gay life in Weimar Berlin has imparted to this young black man “the daydream of being the rootless stranger in Berlin who seduced tough German boys.” The itinerary is declared from the first paragraph, as if to suggest that what awaits is a picaresque voyage of self-discovery, or indeed of self-reinvention. The time is “the awful 1980s” and the West Berlin to which Jed travels is the cold war outpost and bohemian magic kingdom of the Brezhnev era.

The Chicago-born Jed informs us: “I may have fallen apart in the city of my birth, but the city of my rebirth would see me put back together again.” It is not revealing too much to say that no such clearly signposted or seamlessly affirmative story is underway. Jed’s narrative is splintered and conflicted from the outset, as it moves toward an imagined Berlin future while being constantly tugged back toward an inescapable past in Chicago, and the complexities thicken as he fills in—not in linear order but by the corkscrewing play of associations—the details of his life in both cities.

Jed comes from a family of strivers and high achievers. His uncle is the founder of a once highly successful black newspaper whose business manager is Jed’s father; his mother is a social activist who invites women in need of shelter (or, as Jed calls them, the “crazies”) into the family home; his brother is a corporate lawyer turned futures trader; his cousin is a brilliantly talented classical pianist. Jed has signally failed to live up to such expectations; aside from any disappointment caused by owning up to his family about being “well, that way,” he has let himself drift without apparent goal, falling into addictions to drugs and drinking. When we encounter him in Berlin he is recuperating from an earlier disgrace (on a previous shorter visit to the city) fueled by his inordinate fondness for white wine. Renouncing that habit has made him less socially assured, as he notes in a characteristic comment, at once tartly comic and self-lacerating: “When I drank…I entered into any scene where life put me, an expert, a veteran, an old China hand, regardless of what it was about. When not drinking, I disappeared into the cushions.”

The opening of Black Deutschland finds him back in the city of his dreams determined to make a better go of it. He attends AA meetings, stays—for a time, and in a strained atmosphere—in the home of his pianist cousin (nicknamed Cello for her voluptuous figure), who has settled in Berlin as the culturally connected wife of a wealthy industrialist, and goes to work for a fashionable postmodern architect, N.I. Rosen-Montag, who has enlisted him as a staff writer on a highly publicized project described as “The Interrogation of a City.” The latter phrase exactly captures the tone of a certain kind of corporate-sponsored avant-gardism, but also suggests what much of the book consists of, a continuous pointed interrogation not only of Berlin and its variegated cast of posers and seekers, but of Chicago, of families and their hidden sorrows, of America’s and Europe’s racial and political realities, of the imperatives of desire and addiction. All this is filtered through Jed’s own self-questioning with regard to the many identities he entertains, fends off, imagines, or discards in his quest for something like an untrammeled life, a life in which he can at least lose himself in his Isherwood-fueled dream of “white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.”

Jed’s Berlin is archetypally that enclave where you are permitted to stop time and hold off commitment to any irrevocable identity—or at least, in collusion with others, to indulge the fantasy of doing so. Everything is temporary, provisional, including the architect’s grand project, which ultimately is reduced to a “Potemkin Village” of façades: “Trompe l’oeil after trompe l’oeil showed the arches and long French windows of elegant, affordable houses that might be there someday.” As for Jed’s erotic dream, it remains largely aspirational. He spends much of his time in discontented waiting and wandering, nursing a crush on Manfred, “a hunk under a yellow hard hat” who works for Rosen-Montag and unfortunately prefers women. (When he finally does encounter “that thing, out of the blue, a someone into you,” it isn’t one of the German boys he dreamed of but a West African student with whom he will experience both fleeting bliss and further realms of misprision and ill-placed confidence.)

Shuttling between the “traditional high culture” of his cousin and her husband and the “alternative high culture” of his architect employer, Jed is perfectly positioned to catch fragments of high-cultural chatter (his cousin Cello remarks, “Wagner is a cheap whore who stole everything from Haydn”) and marks of subservient influence, as the architect’s acolytes strive to emulate “his elegant fitted clothes—black jeans, black T-shirts, black jackets, lustrous black leather overcoats.” At every turn there are notations of how, in the smallest encounters, people signal limits or claim territory or keep unsolicited intrusions at bay.

Jed finds his real home, however, in the less confining world of the ChiChi, a cluttered bar owned by a black expatriate: “It was a place where people experiencing a bad night strayed in to finish things off with meltdowns, blackouts, fistfights, seizures. Sex was just the messy afterthought, something to do when daylight hit.” The book circles back repeatedly to the surf-like rhythms of a bar where something is always happening but nothing really progresses, a theater of accidental encounters taking place outside of time. Many lives feed into the life of the barroom, and it is here if anywhere that Jed can step outside the contingencies of his own life by immersing himself in the lives of others. Later he describes the ChiChi as looking “like the inside of a shoebox of secrets.” This too might be a description of the novel itself, narrated as it is by someone who tells us that “to lie and to keep my own secrets had been the chief strategy of my life.”

Many secrets will emerge, but not all at once. For all the narrator’s candor, there is also an artful withholding going on, always leaving open the possibility that it is from himself that Jed is withholding them. Some of the secrets have to do with connections among the people he knows in Berlin—hidden drug use, hidden liaisons, the betrayal of the one fully satisfying love affair that Jed manages—connections of which he becomes aware only gradually, and sometimes painfully. A map is being built up out of points of connection, but these are delivered elliptically and out of sequence. Beyond or beneath the secrets of Berlin lie the secrets of the Chicago that Jed left behind. A book about looking for the future in one city turns out to be just as much about the inescapable past in another.

The center is not Berlin, with flashbacks and interludes in Chicago; the center is somewhere in the unbridgeable distance between Chicago and Berlin. The interplay between the two cities establishes the deep music of Black Deutschland. The distance is made explicit in a scene where Jed, venturing to make a formal presentation to the architect and his followers, tries vainly to persuade them of the significance of the White City, the “fantasy town” constructed in Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, an impermanent city like Berlin itself. He puts forward intellectual arguments to make the case to the indifferent Germans, but the heart of what he is trying to convey is rooted in “a tattered bound book of souvenir portfolios” belonging to his parents, a book that had absorbed him in childhood.

The Berlin scenes can seem like deliberately disconnected montage or rough-edged collage, as if nothing could be more desirable than freedom from built-in connections and their obligations, in a city where the people Jed observes in a plaza on his first arrival “looked like they’d met at the train station a few minutes before and had walked over to conclude unsavory transactions.” By contrast the scenes in which Jed remembers or returns to Chicago feel like the progressive uncovering of the layers of a family’s story. If the Berliners bounce randomly off each other like subatomic particles, the people who make up Jed’s extended family are tied by memories that go back generations, memories often unspoken and imbued with different kinds of pain and failure.

So many in Jed’s family have struggled to establish a place for themselves, to go beyond the limits set by a white society, yet finally he is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of what the cost has been: a patriarch grown delusional, a father lost to alcoholism, a son lost to violent madness, the blighting of Cello’s potential career—she who had “represented Negro Achievement, whether a National Merit scholar in high school or a finalist in the Chicago Stokowski Society competition”—by crippling anxiety. In the midst of this Jed is always the acute and alienated observer, reconstructing the personal histories of everyone in the family with compressed precision, charting fault lines and limits. He revisits his difficult relations with his mother (“I had denounced in rehab her social activism as a species of child neglect”) and registers his own early and incommunicable hurt at feeling different from the rest of his family:

Because I was darker than my brother and my parents, to my way of thinking, had I been able to put shame into words back then, they had an expectation of acceptance I was denied. They would always look like decent people, the right sort of black people, whereas I had to talk for a few minutes before white people decided not to throw me out of wherever I was.

As often in this book, some of the most poignant moments arise from the contemplation of objects and furnishings that become emblems of lives. Jed looks in his parents’ home at the “ribcage-high shelves of oversize illustrated books about black American history, Africa, television, the stockyards, and baseball,” and sees “the lobby of a bygone rooming house or the waiting room of some settlement charity.” It is in the contemplation of his place of origin that Jed reveals most candidly who he is, and why, for all the love and encouragement his family had to offer, he needs to be somewhere else: “There was no there where I came from anymore.” The delayed and out-of-sequence way in which this family chronicle emerges—a novel within a novel that compresses to maximum effect the amplitude of some much longer multigenerational narrative—meshes with the intricate cross-cutting in time as well as space that marks the whole book.

What begins as a seemingly straightforward account is progressively complicated by the spiraling patterns of memory and belated understanding of what occurred earlier. Kierkegaard’s dictum to the effect that life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward suggests the peculiar roundabout, stop-and-start rhythms. A world is built up out of fragments of perception. Oblique glances reconstruct other people’s histories on the basis of a half-seen encounter on the other side of a barroom or an overheard remark at a concert. Standing back on the sidelines of a crowded family gathering, Jed watches with detachment as his father, a man not gifted at small talk, does his best to fulfill the spirit of the occasion as he makes his way among the guests: “What he was doing was revolving from the kitchen through the dining room to the living room and back, clapping the same dozen people on the back and saying anything that seemed jolly, spirit-keeping.” Such illuminations arise under the pressure of the moment, not dramatic climaxes but sudden temporary clarities.

In a recent discussion, Pinckney likened his central character to “those rootless losers of Dostoevsky.” Of those underground men Jed certainly has the bitter alertness, the capacity for abrasive self-analysis, the humorous parading of any perceived snubbing and condescension dealt out to him, the savoring of contradictions, the rude skewering of whatever seems feigned. He displays an unerring sense of fumbled advances, unwitting exclusions, mutually misunderstood conversations. He assembles notes for a taxonomy of social tactics, Berlin edition. He charts the way a shared reference point—David Bowie or the Lockerbie bombing—can become something that separates rather than brings together. Every celebration hovers on the brink of breaking apart into violent conflict or public humiliation. Jed’s residence in a left-wing commune provides the occasion for a series of sharp and sometimes hilarious sketches of small-scale ideological maneuvering.

Jed is also presented as a mine of historical consciousness. If he has not always acted appropriately, he has read deeply, and if he has not found a life that suits him he has taken the measure of other lives. A box of books makes its appearance from time to time, a prop that is almost a secret character since the novel is so thoroughly infused with the life of other books, other chronicles. The historical and contemporary figures in Jed’s interior discourse—Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Luxemburg, Philippa Schuyler, Nina Simone, Cecil Taylor, Susan Sontag—provide a home more real than the phantom city of Berlin. They serve as reminders of change while he lingers in a pocket of the world that fends off the possibility of change.

The counterpoint between the ongoingness of subjective experience and the rude interruptions of outside events (a disco bombing in Schöneberg, Chernobyl, the Salman Rushdie affair) reaches its culmination in the fall of the Wall. But the epochal moment, when it comes, turns out to be a bit of a fizzle—Jed scrambling “to get to the noise, to where the party was going on”—followed by hangovers and nasty turf wars. History unfolds as always in the midst of distraction, misunderstanding, and partially obscured sight lines. Jed finds himself—or finds himself still lost—in a city abruptly awoken from a long dream that was also in part his dream. Earlier in the book he had recalled: “My dad said that one of the worst feelings in the world was that of not knowing what was one’s calling, one’s path.” We are left at last with Jed’s refusal to make peace with any of the unacceptable choices the world has offered.