The Terrible Twos
The Color Purple
The fact that I have yoked new novels by Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker together in the same review should not mislead the reader into regarding them as somehow “representative” of contemporary black fiction or as jointly making some big statement about the black experience in America. The two books have about as much in common (if I may switch the medium) as one of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip blowups and a WPA painting of cotton pickers in the field.
The Terrible Twos is the latest in the series of pop-art novels (Mumbo Jumbo, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Flight to Canada) which, with their bizarre inventions and liveliness of language, have won for Reed a small but vociferous following. The book takes its title from the well-known proclivities of toddlers, aged two, who, according to the novel’s fake Santa Claus, set the standard of maturity for our great republic:
“Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…. Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk. I weep as I read these letters the poor children send to me at my temporary home in Alaska.”
Expanding on this theme, Reed has put together an odd contraption made of many disparate parts—among them the Reagan administration, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the hagiography of St. Nicholas, and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The novel begins with a Christmas Past, that of 1980, the coldest in memory. It is a particularly Scrooge-ish season, typified by the attitude of the incoming administration, whose supporters—the new rich—can pay $600 for a shirt and $450 for a pair of Lucchese boots while millions of poor people are without heat and whole families perish in urban fires caused by defective heaters.
We quickly meet a crowd of cartoonlike characters: a TV executive, Bob Krantz, who, as soon as Reagan’s election was confirmed, ordered all the network’s black employees to get rid of their corn-row hairstyles; Dean Clift, the top male model of the United States; a little black Rastafarian ventriloquist and his dummy; a dissatisfied wife named Vixen; and a bright young man, Oswald Zumwalt, who works in a department store and has the bright idea of replacing all the Santa Clauses in America with a single Santa who will have exclusive rights to the name. “Santa Claus is too dispersed as it is,” says Zumwalt, whose monopolistic Santa will be made available only to those who can pay for his services.
Each of these characters (and there are many more, black and white) is introduced in a brief scene with just enough dialogue to fix him or …