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Plunging into Life

The Car Thief

by Theodore Weesner
Random House, 370 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: “But we did because you wanted the bases there to give your economy a boost.” The general in charge then wonders where the blacks can be sent, and he is told the Aussies are nervous, and Gruening doesn’t want them mixing with Eskimos. “Panama wants us to remove a company of Negroes.” “Isn’t that something! That damned canal was built by niggers!” Chile and Venezuela say no, there are political reservations in China, and the Belgians in exile say no black troops in the Congo. It is all cartoon work, but Williams is never blind to the comic fact that whites simply don’t know what to think or do about black soldiers. That damned canal was built by niggers, but of course the Panamanians don’t want black troops.

Or, later, in Viareggio, a general discovers that two hundred black troops have deserted and taken up a position in the swamps. The general is stuck:

Take these people, kick them in their asses all their lives, then put them in an incomplete unit, with all kinds of shitheads for officers; court-martial a bunch of their own Negro officers and send them out to fight. What the hell for? Of course, Blackman’s right. But what am I to do, let all of what’s wrong come to rest on my shoulders, ruin my life? Am I supposed to be the guy who says, You’re right? Quit, don’t fight, desert into the swamps of Tombolo and Migliarino? I can’t change history.

So he orders his men to go in and kill the deserters, but he also, doing as much as his thin strain of decency will allow, tells Blackman the orders too so he can give warning. Grim, sad, awful.

So if Williams’s fictional device is clumsy, and many of his attempts to flesh out history are vulgar, the central vision is one worth reading. It may not matter much that we learn about this or that incident that we’ve never heard of, but the grim joke that is our racial history does need to be told over and over, and the very sameness of the joke in each of Williams’s many episodes is necessarily part of the telling, the irony, the joke. We may like to think that by now we’ve moved beyond such simple versions of the story, but that is exactly what people said in response to Richard Wright’s Native Son, and they were wrong, and that was more than thirty years ago. Captain Blackman, like Native Son, is not a novel, but it is hard to wish that either had never been written.

Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief is an almost unbearably grim and painful book. After a hundred pages I wanted very much not to go on, to escape to the much simpler world of Captain Blackman, yet every word is haunting, forcing one on. The novel is set in small city America, an automobile factory town in Michigan. It is a scummy November morning, after a flash snowstorm, and Alex Housman is driving around the city and countryside in a car he has just stolen, his fourteenth. He parks outside a school where he might see a girl he has picked up a few times who wears a coat he stole and gave her. He peers into the tavern run by his mother’s husband, where his brother lives, but he has seen none of these people for years. He flicks the dial on the car radio, trying to find music he can float away on. He goes back to the city, to his own school, but can’t stand the idea of afternoon classes, so he goes to a movie. He goes home, sleeps awhile, and is awakened by the girl, who calls to say she has told her parents of Alex’s thefts and they have called the police. His father comes home from the second shift at the Chevrolet factory and for once he is not drunk. The two have a desultory conversation, then go to bed. The next day Alex is arrested and sent to a detention home.

It is not easy to say or show why the prose in these early pages is so awful and wonderful. It seems naturalistic, but compared to the simple pile-it-up naturalism of, say, James T. Farrell, it is sharp, pointed, locking us into each moment, suspending us from all other possible moments, giving us a sense that something is going to happen soon:

He had a nickel in his fingers now but he had no desire to play the pinball machine, no more than he wanted to be there. Still, he worked the nickel flatways into the slot, pushed the handle in, held it as the balls fell, pulled the handle out. The machine lighted and clicked itself back to zero, alive under his hands. But he stood mute. His mind’s voice was telling him, trying to tell him, that he did not want to play it. Nor did he want the packaged pie he had bought, or the Pepsi-Cola. He saw everything going this way, the way of this morning, driving here, driving there, doing things he did not want to do.

All the actions seem arbitrary, pointed nowhere, each one suspending us from the past by giving us so little connection to what has preceded, each one thus locking us into its own charged, sullen, pointless atmosphere.

What we have is something like the prose of short stories, where events can be described but not explained, where we get our slice of life and have our brief clarifying vision. Weesner takes this prose, but keeps insisting that clarity is not yet, perhaps not ever, and we must pay attention to that very fact. Alex Housman is almost totally without any sense of himself, and because Weesner is interested in showing us what that means, he must move very slowly, so we can discover the disappointment and frustration of its tedium. We are given material for a dozen sociological or psychological explanations for Alex—grimy factory town; a child of a brief wartime marriage; an unknown mother and an alcoholic, willing, failed father; Alex’s only companion, his brother, taken from him some years earlier. But such explanations are, in a sense, short story explanations, neat and tidy, and Weesner scorns them and forces us to do so too.

In the detention home Alex does almost nothing for two months, and slowly he begins to remember things that have happened to him, living in foster homes, learning about his father, playing in a muddy river with his brother, clinging to the edges of his very few pleasures. But we cannot say whether he ended up a car thief because he wanted something to do, because he sought some revenge, or because he wanted to be caught and for someone thus to pay him attention. Best to say that when the car was stolen something was defined, yet that definition turns to nothing in the detention home. Thus, when he is released and sent home and back to school, Alex is free, given a chance, yet nothing has happened. He tries to do better in school and even partly succeeds, but it makes no sense or difference to him. He goes out for the basketball team and does very well for a while, but quits when he realizes he is being given little chance because he is a jailbird. He then can act out his sense of being excluded only by becoming more voyeuristic. He takes a paper route and peeps in early morning windows. He seeks a girl he has always dreamed of, but when she responds he cannot accept her kindness.

Page by page, as Weesner patiently builds, we realize we are coming better to understand Alex, or at least better able to accept and even to predict some of his apparently aimless and desperate actions. The truth of novels, after all, is that lives do have shapes, even this one.

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