If Beale Street Could Talk
Train Whistle Guitar
“I’d rather be here, than any place I know,” sings the boulevardier of Handy’s great blues song, unintimidated by having seen the seven wonders of the white world for he is sure that Beale Street had more than enough life and love for anyone until they closed down the saloons. As an account of black experience in America this has obvious limitations, and the irony in the title of James Baldwin’s bitter new novel of black lovers in the repressive hands of white justice tells us clearly enough the point he wants to make. But the novel itself does not succeed in telling a story that convinces us of that point.
Toward the middle of this novel Baldwin’s heroine and narrator; Tish Rivers, has dinner with her man, Fonny Hunt, in a hospitable West Village Spanish restaurant; still she finds that even there freedom is illusory:
But on this particular Saturday night, we did not know [that he would soon be in the Tombs on a false charge of rape]; Fonny did not know, and we were happy, all of us. I had one margherita, though we all knew that this was against the goddam motherfucking shit-eating law, and Fonny had a whiskey because at twenty-one you have a legal right to drink.
These pungent comments reflect Tish’s sense of things after Fonny has become a victim of the police, and so her view of “the law” seems fair enough. But there’s something mysterious in the occasion all the same. When Tish orders the margherita, she is eighteen—old enough to buy a drink under the goddam, etc., New York state law. Even if Tish and Fonny, New York-born and bred, might somehow not have known this, the kindly restaurant proprietors surely would. A small slip of the author’s mind, no doubt, but a sign of a larger problem in the book.
Whatever other horrors the law has in store for this couple, their anger has no immediate occasion in the scene—Tish is telling us of something she could not have felt in this way at this time. Elsewhere, too, Baldwin’s decision to have Tish tell the story produces obscurities that compromise the passion and immediacy his social and political theme demands. He writes himself into the trap of making Tish describe events she didn’t witness and that neither she nor her presumed informant can plausibly know about, as when her mother, Sharon, goes to Puerto Rico to look for evidence in Fonny’s behalf from the woman he is accused of raping:
This is the first time that Sharon has been alone in a very long time. Even now, she is alone merely physically, in the same way, for example, that she is alone when she goes shopping for her family….
Since this seems to say that for a long time she hasn’t been alone in the way she’s alone when she goes shopping, one would conclude …