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Easy Living

High Cotton

by Darryl Pinckney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 309 pp., $21.00

Summertime, the song says, is when the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high. Ease is a relative notion, of course, and in the world of Porgy and Bess it means only a modest letup in a very hard life. Similarly the high cotton of Darryl Pinckney’s title signals a realm of relative comfort and privilege which is nevertheless haunted by a sense of barriers and denials and difficulties, and is only (at the most) four generations away from slavery.

The narrator’s grandfather was “educated in the Holy Land,” we learn, but his grandfather was a slave. The Holy Land is not Palestine, but Brown and Harvard. The biblical joke glances at grandfather’s later career as a Congregational minister, but also at the curious mingling of class, culture, and religion in the mythology of American blacks. The narrator wryly describes his own family as picturing themselves as the Also Chosen, a shifting category which may include all or most black people or only those who behave themselves. “Also” means as well as (upper-class) whites, a kindly cultural afterthought on God’s part; or it hints at a special destiny of election and oppression, a second Jewry. The immediate members of the Also Chosen, the narrator’s father and mother, are respectable and college-educated. They don’t let the children play with the rough kids on the block, and when the living gets easy enough, they move from central Indianapolis to a white suburb.

Visits to the South are excursions into a spiky and complicated past, a rigid, alien country: Grandfather’s stern church in Louisville, Kentucky, and Aunt Clara’s crowded house in Opelika, Alabama. The aunt’s house is “a zoo of things,” and she herself seems “like an exhibit, part of the uncontrolled decor, a specimen in the menagerie of ceramic dog figurines.” She is genteel (“Aunt Clara talked like someone who had made up her mind not to leave any footprints”) and fairly well-off (driver, Cadillac, Steinway), and her mother has taught her that segregation serves chiefly to keep “nice Negroes” away from white trash. But just down the hill and across the creek are the cabins with broken windows, the apparently eternal Bottom of the social order (“Every town had a Bottom, every Negro had a story with a Bottom in it”).

The dust jacket (but not the title page) describes High Cotton as a novel, and the book’s characters and events just might be fictional. But its setting in time and place is thoroughly historical—we hear of Selma, the death of Marilyn Monroe, early civil rights demonstrations, the fall of Saigon, we are in Harlem, in Paris, at a vividly detailed Columbia, there are graphically described New York killings and beatings—and it doesn’t read like a novel at all. Calling it one seems to be not so much an assertion of genre as a means of allowing imaginative leeway to a quirky and brilliant memoir. Certain figures or moments must have been shifted or shaped for satire or discretion, and toward the end the book does begin to feel like fiction: scenes seem to be arranged to dramatize plights and questions rather than to reconstruct experiences. For the rest, the effect is of a writer delicately, intelligently tracing pieces of an uninvented life. The art is in the selection of the traces and in the angle of vision.

There is plenty of art, and at times the book seems cramped by its will to elegance, as if it were a high-gloss, New York version of Aunt Clara’s drawing room. Sentences, ambushed by irony, turn into epigrams before they have a chance to draw any sort of declarative breath. “I would have gone on a retreat but my check to the religious order bounced”; “All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow”; “I wasn’t heartless, but I was the next best thing: almost heartless.”

These are good sentences, but taken together—there are dozens, maybe hundreds of similar sentences—they tend to turn the style into a form of anxiety, a bid for control, the expression of a desire to be nobody’s fool but your own. Metaphors and similes crackle like new banknotes. “To look at this woman for the first time was to feel yourself about to get run over at an intersection.” Aunt Clara’s pearls lie “like a pet against the folds of her neck”; dawn enters an old man’s room “like a nurse”; heat falls “like an edict.” Black demonstrators accumulate “like pennies,” roll away “like beads of mercury.” The family house looks “like a wrecked boat tossed on a hill,” and the old-timers who keep appearing are “like arguments for the spontaneous regeneration of barnacles.” Some of these images are remarkable and some of them—the wire mesh of a porch “as black as Ray Charles’s sunglasses,” the Christmas punch “that put us in mind of English pond life”—have a splendid self-parodying kick. But many suggest the writer hiding among his phrases, disappearing into glitter the way the child he portrays keeps disappearing into Anglophile fantasy.

Fortunately, this very disappearance—and its alternatives—are a major subject of the book, and the writing, while remaining stylish, does escape its obsession with style. It can’t let go, but it learns to relax, and at its best Pinckney’s prose—funny, observant, lyrical, self-deprecating—is as good as any now being written in English. “The choir warped a few more hymns of adoration…”: “warped” hints at a biased warble, or a warble that got lost, or maybe just an inability to stay in time or tune, and “a few” suggests the narrator wasn’t counting but knew there were too many for his liking. “I wish I could say I was thinking about him,” the narrator says of a boy killed outside a New York bar, and now wrapped in a sheet on the bar floor, “stopped, subtracted, about his parents asleep, unprepared for the anniversary that had entered their lives.” “Stopped” and “subtracted” make us see this death as both simple and unimaginable, and it is characteristic of the moral complication and richness of Pinckney’s story that his narrator should not be thinking of the boy or his parents—should think of them now, that is in the writing and remember that he did not think of them then.

High Cotton has two dubious but memorable heroes: the narrator’s grandfather and the narrator himself. The narrator’s own parents are oddly vague figures, kindly but unvisualized sources of shelter, prohibitions, comments, and the occasional check. He has a theory about this—“Every generation is an enemy of its father’s and a friend of its grandfather’s”—but he doesn’t show any enmity between child and parent, only an eagerness to keep the parents out of the picture. The theory in any case is perhaps rather wishful, and suggests more choice in matters of ancestry and formation than most of us may think we have. The theory has us writing our own ticket by skipping a generation; skipping, that is, all the clearest writing already on the ticket: home, and the daily, clock-marked influences of our childhood. The narrator does find it “chastising to speculate about your parents as people who had another life…and had been through more than a few texts,” but this is not the book where he chastises himself much on this topic.

Still, he knows exactly what he is doing, and the very wishfulness of the theory reminds us of something important about the work. If it is not fiction, it is not autobiography either. If the parents are vague, the narrator’s affective life and adventures are not even that, they are absent. The book is full, so to speak, of things that are not there. High Cotton is the story not of a development but of a preoccupation; its episodes, although chronologically ordered, highlight important patches of memory and consciousness rather than any steady sequence or growth. It is not about being black but about thinking and behaving black even (especially) when you imagine you’re beyond that kind of stuff. Of Pinckney’s twelve chapter titles only two do not refer, explicitly or implicitly, to color, and one of those two, “Summertime,” involves a reference to Gershwin’s black opera.

Grandfather is Eustace, who was born on a farm near Dublin, Georgia, in 1898, and died in a retirement home in Indianapolis in 1985. He is “the emperor of out-of-it,” the narrator says, “yet he was also a distinguished man who tried, in his way, to answer all the questions…anxious to pass on that record of alienated majesty.” Grandfather insists not on the sufferings but on the triumphs of blacks who know how to get on in the world, but he also remarks that “the poor die differently from everyone else,” and is said to have “loved sinners,” although he was himself a good, even an incorruptible man. “He found being himself a protection of sorts,” the narrator rather obscurely says—the phrase makes more sense if we think of the admiring, ambivalent narrator as lacking both protection and self. The narrator as a boy fears and patronizes his grandfather, a dim old darky from that other world. As a young man he patronizes and yearns for the old boy, as if he were a script with a secret, the one message the past couldn’t fail to give.

On the last page of the book the narrator is picturing himself as becoming his grandfather, “someone’s old darky, exercising my fictitious cultural birthright to run off at the mouth,” but then the irony fades and sheer mournful eloquence takes over. Grandfather and grandson are now a single voice, the voice of anyone who remembers what others have forgotten, yet cannot say what it is they remember, and only pass on to us their passionate belief in the act of remembrance itself. These are the last words of the book:

I may elect myself a witness and undertake to remember when something more important than black, white, and other was lost. Even now I grieve for what has been betrayed. I see the splendor of the mornings and hear how glad the songs were, back in the days when the Supreme Court was my Lourdes, beyond consolation. The spirit didn’t lie down and die, but it’s been here and gone, been here and gone.

It is a spirit we are to remember, not a circumscribed self or a set of problems. Eustace and Aunt Clara have names, as do Uncle Castor and Uncle Ulysses, and the militant Sister Egba, the doorman Jesse, the singer Jeannette, the college friend Bargetta. But the narrator’s parents and sisters don’t, and he doesn’t. The family name is that of a “Carolinian…English planter family,” and amuses Djuna Barnes—she makes a striking guest appearance when the narrator does odd jobs for her—with its “antebellum echo.” The narrator’s first name also amuses Miss Barnes because of its “contemporary Dixie-cup quality,” and she calls him Mr. D. “Darryl Pinckney” would fit the bill here, but our narrator is determined on a Proustian indirection, and we are not to learn any more except that he admits to a certain “goofiness” in his name. Delmore Schwartz is reported as saying, “Delmore Schwartz, what a beautiful name!” as if he had just found it, or as if someone had just made it up.

This silence is not trivial, since the case, I take it, is exemplary as well as individual. Our narrator, perhaps like many others, is not entirely a person. To be a person he would have to see himself, not only the dazzling masks he employs; and the self he would see would be, among other things, undeniably black. He has a dream in which he joins the Vienna Boys Choir, but in the dream he sees only the uniform because he can’t put a black face and hands into that angelic and sanitized vision. It’s not that he denies his blackness or is ashamed of it—although there are moments when he comes close to that—it’s that he cannot accept the drastic simplifications the acknowledgment of blackness seems to imply. He sees his color as an unmanageable and unrefusable legacy, not who you are but something you can’t not have. The same goes for any color, we might say, but the rewards are better for whites, and the chance of complacency infinitely greater. The narrator much admires his friend Bargetta because without in any way denying her color she takes “the black experience” as “just so much light opera.” But that too is a way of being marked by what you wish to reject; an entangled sort of freedom.

What our narrator wants is an exemption from the human connection which will nevertheless allow him to be a nice guy, and to do his bit (now and again) for the right cause. The most courageous thing in this book is his recognition of this desire as a long, debilitating fallacy. There is wit and grace in the recognition too. “I would rather have lived with the Murdstones,” the narrator says in his David Copperfield phrase, “than be needed by anyone.” And later: “Now I am sorry I went to such lengths not to be of much use to myself just so no one would be able to ask anything of me. To have nothing to offer was not, after all, the best way to have nothing to lose.” This is a more than chastising thought; it is also the point at which style drops all disguise and turns to limpid understanding. “I didn’t like the togetherness that expressed itself as suspicion,” the narrator comments, and there are all kinds of togetherness which many of us would be very keen to refuse. But then terrible beauties might be born without us, and we could find ourselves regretfully saying, with Pinckney’s narrator, “Now I miss those whom injury made gracious and also those who simply uglied up and died.”

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