In the title story of John Edgar Wideman’s last collection, All Stories Are True, published in 1992, the first-person narrator is looking at his mother on her porch one quiet morning, “May 10, 1991.” Their Homewood neighborhood has always been rough. He is afraid for her, though her hair has begun to grow back after nine months of chemo. She isn’t up to going with her son to visit another of her sons in prison. The “pardons board” has just turned him down, without a hearing. They talk about her neighbor’s Job-like endurance of his sufferings and the unnamed son observes, “You know, Mom, people look at you and what you’ve had to deal with and you’re just as much a miracle to them as you say Wade is to you.” She answers that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. “Not everybody has that kind of god,” the son says.
We know from his memoir, Brothers and Keepers (1984), that Wideman has a brother who in 1975 participated in a robbery during which a man was killed. Though Wideman’s brother was not the killer, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The tragedy informs Wideman’s subjects—prisons, the trap of crime and drugs for black youth. Prison happening to family members is a terrible, irrevocable event in the lives of some of his fictional narrators. His stories seem to be revealing of his private life, but they aren’t. His life as a black man in the US has given him his themes, but his stories chronicle his own life only obliquely, in fragments, at points where his life as the son who got away meets that of the working-class black families in Homewood. The date “May 10, 1991” in All Stories Are True may be there to hold truth unharmed above fiction, because it has a private significance to the writer and his younger brother behind bars.
God’s Gym, Wideman’s seventeenth book and his fourth collection of stories, is all voice, or a series of voices, each story a monologue, a rap, a stream in which someone expresses himself very strenuously. Through the years Wideman has been as experimental in his stories as he has been in his several novels. In both forms he has invented a variety of characters to speak about life, the black experience. In his stories, he has used every sort of narrator, including a baby put in the trash, killed by its mother on the day of its birth. He has sometimes taken a woman’s point of view, a mother reminiscing about her dead child, for instance. Women are among the best of his storytellers in Damballah (1981), a volume of connected stories about his family’s history over four generations in Homewood, the black section of Pittsburgh where Wideman comes from.
When it comes to Homewood’s lore no story is his alone, whether he is making up tales that are meant to sound handed-down or remembering others’ riffs, taking them from the familial air around him. His early stories are crammed with the presence of others, the talking and the talked about, saturated with a sense of black history as family history, starting with his great-great-great-grandparents who escaped slavery in 1859, made their way north, and settled on the highest hill in what became Homewood. The short fictions in his second collection, Fever (1989), are acts of historical recovery or meditations on history, as he himself says of the title story, an extraordinary work about an epidemic of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793 in which Reverend Richard Allen, founding bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, ministers to the dying.
Now at Brown University, Wideman became a professor of English, out in Wyoming to begin with, and was at the University of Massachusetts for most of his distinguished career. In “Signs,” one of the ten stories in All Stories Are True, he writes about a young black woman professor harassed by campus hate mail and racist graffiti. Mostly, however, he has preferred to write about the working-class lives that went into the making of him rather than about the middle-class life he has made since. Yet in his fiction there is sometimes a character, usually a man, who is uncomfortable about coming back to the old neighborhood, because he doesn’t like the involuntary comparisons he makes between his life and theirs, the people he has left behind.
In 1963, Wideman became the first black Rhodes scholar since Alain Locke in 1907. Wideman had played basketball for the University of Pennsylvania and, as with C.L.R. James and cricket, basketball for him is an intense, lyrical subject. “Showing up at the playground to hoop” is something that reconnects him, emotionally, to his old neighborhood, to any black neighborhood similar to it, and to the youth he finds there, the present generation repeating so much of the past: in 1988 Wideman’s son was sentenced to life in prison for murder. In a brief, touching sketch, “Casa Grande,” in All Stories Are True, a father discovers a story about visiting Jupiter that his son wrote when he was ten years old. He’d found it just after celebrating his son’s twenty-first birthday with him in an Arizona prison, where he is serving a life sentence. The narrator thought he’d forgotten the story until he read again a journal entry he’d made after visiting his son on another occasion. “He sits on a planet ten million light years away….” In a few paragraphs, Wideman offers the son’s story, the father’s journal entry, and a summary of the story of a lost tribe of the Gila River in Arizona Territory nine centuries ago, as if these layers of storytelling were protection from the true facts of the story he’s not telling.
His stories are what Wideman can do for the family he left behind among the broken lives that Homewood turned into. He can speak for them or give them their chance to speak through him. He makes them heard, known. “Stories are letters. Letters sent to anybody or everybody. But the best kind are meant to be read by a specific somebody. When you read that kind you know you are eavesdropping.” Thus Wideman’s ideal readers, members of his family, have always been among his subjects as well. In his late fiction, James Baldwin had as the writer a similar relation to his family subjects, and, as in the case of Baldwin, the question for Wideman is how inhibiting or freeing of tone is love.
Wideman’s narrators in the ten stories of God’s Gym are mostly black men. The voices in his stories have for the most part grown older, become middle-aged, compared to those of his previous volumes. A man walks his father around his nursing home in the story “Are Dreams Faster Than the Speed of Light.” In another story, “Sharing,” a white woman on her own wants to make friends with the black man who has ignored her for years, but it’s too late for him to meet anyone new. Wideman’s black men are now thinking about death, lost love, and the end of things, the ways in which life defeats us all. In “Weight,” the narrator praises his mother’s faith, calling her “a weightlifter.” She lifts burdens, not weights, her children’s burdens, her neighbors’. “Whatever awful calamities arrive on her doorstep or howl in the news, my mom squeezes her frail body beneath them.”
Her “sweaty, bleeding god” presides over “a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles.”
In spite of a son in prison for life, twin girls born dead, a mind-blown son who roams the streets with everything he owns in a shopping cart, a strung-out daughter with a crack baby, a good daughter who miscarried the only child her dry womb ever produced, in spite of me and the rest of my limp-along, near-to-normal siblings and their children—my nephews doping and gangbanging, nieces unwed, underage, dropping babies as regularly as the seasons—in spite of breast cancer, sugar diabetes, hypertension, failing kidneys, emphysema, gout, all resident in her body and epidemic in the community, knocking off one by one her girlhood friends, in spite of corrosive poverty and a neighborhood whose streets are no longer safe even for gray, crippled-up folks like her, my mom loves her god, thanks him for the blessings he bestows.
The narrator recalls the precise moment in childhood when he first became aware of his “Caucasian-featured” mother’s “prodigious strength.” They were in a supermarket and a white cashier observed that he was big for his age, and he, too, noticed, for the first time, that he had grown taller than his mother, because he felt small and inadequate beside her.
The narrator then interrupts himself to tell us that he has been reading what he’s written so far to his mother, over the phone, long-distance, and can tell from her silence that she is not pleased. “Mom’s always been my best critic. I depend on her honesty.” She hasn’t laughed. “I called it a story but Mom knew better.” He apologizes for the “weightlifting joke.” “Nobody ain’t called me nothing like weightlifter before. It’s different, sure enough.” The possibility that he has hurt her feelings torments him, but he defends his intentions, his conception of stories as the “time and place to say things I need to say,” including “God jokes.” What he wants and has always received from her is her smile of absolution. “Let’s begin again.”
Wideman’s narrator begins again, addressing his mother directly, noting how “the perkiness I sensed in you [on Tuesday] helped make my Wednesday super.” He writes two pages, but when he phones her again on Thursday there is no answer and it “was too late for you to be out.” He imagines a neighbor and the building’s super “pushing open your door,” but he gives up, saying “what happened is less important sometimes than finding a good way to tell it.” “Dark-suited, strong men in somber ties and white shirts will lug you out of the church, down the stone steps, launch your gleaming barge into the black river of the Cadillac’s bay.” He returns to “the problem” of “weightlifter” as a metaphor, saying he’d only wanted to understand “your” faith. What he won’t say is that she has died.
He continues to speak to her, apologizing for not realizing at the time that what had upset her about the story he tried to read to her was that he’d introduced it by saying it was “about a man scared he won’t survive his mother’s passing.” Toward the end of “Weight,” the narrator confesses to his mother that he has been scared every day of his life of losing her. Now he has a burden of sorrow that he must lift by its brass handles. He wonders,
But would it be worth the risk, worth failing, if I could find words to tell our story and also keep us covered inside it, work us invisibly into the fret, the warp and woof of the story’s design, safe there, connected there as words in perfect poems, the silver apples of the moon, golden apples of the sun, blue guitars.
With Wideman, nothing is told simply. Several stories in God’s Gym have a structure in which the narrator starts in one direction, but breaks off to comment on the story that has been proposed. Or they read as fragments he’d picked up from years ago, but finished in another mood. For example, “Who Invented the Jump Shot,” a story of free-floating racial bitterness, is suitably complicated: it begins with an academic seminar room, in which the narrator is certain the whites present will find a way to give credit to a white for the move, and then shifts to a damaged boy back in 1927 excited by the arrival of the forerunners of the Harlem Globetrotters. Or a short tale, “Hunters,” opens in the gruesome voice of a white man who is part of a group that has chased and shot a black couple who’ve been caught in the woods. He is about to rape the dying woman and speaks of pulling off her “jeans” and “sneakers,” so presumably the murders have been imagined in the present, not in a past where crackers enjoy the license to kill blacks. Yet his country voice sounds like a parody of back when and is perhaps meant to, because the story then switches into the voice of the story’s writer. “And that’s how the story starts of what white boys did to my baby.” This preamble is a sexual myth of white men as sexual predators that the writer invokes and then attacks.
What follows in “Hunters” couldn’t be less countrified: this mild college anxiety as the narrator speculates on what it must have been like for Jill at her “97-percent-white suburban high school,” and to have her white classmates comment on her hair, “a nappy storm all over her head,” even though she excelled at math, swimming, and playing the tuba, things no one expected a black female student to be good at. “This moveable feast followed her to the best schools.” The more she achieved, the less race would matter. “In my view this strategy also doomed her to hang with white boys.” She was left stranded by her achievements, compelled to view interracial dating as an expression of individuality. He thinks back to his college life, “attending one of the best schools on a hoop scholarship,” how he fled his first dance at the sight of six hundred whites.
But all of that is in the past. He urges Jill not to let the racial past get between them, a black man and a black woman with a history of being with white lovers. “We know how they work us, play us, smother us, integrate us, exhaust us, kill us. Know what they say about our bodies and hair.” In the end, he apologizes to Jill for having begun a story about her in the manner that he has. He mentions to Jill in passing that he’d read a story by a black woman. “I was intrigued by a scene in the story in which the main character allows her wayward white husband to play with her hair.” This is not only another illustration in these stories of Wideman’s layering, his placing of text upon text, it is also part of the openness or self-consciousness in the volume about being a writer. Wideman doesn’t try to give his protagonists different occupations as disguises.
Then, too, for some of his narrators, the books and writers that come up are part of their cultural and racial awareness. In “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” a man takes it upon himself to visit a dead acquaintance’s son in prison out in Arizona. The visit never comes off, but the story is mostly about his affair with a young attorney in the law office which has enabled him to contact the dead man’s son. She’s younger than he is, which gives him room both to hope and to worry:
The world is full of remarkable things. Amiri Baraka penned those words when he was still LeRoi Jones writing his way back to Newark and a new name after a lengthy sojourn among artsy, crazy white folks in the Village. One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite writers. Back in the day when I still pretended books worth talking about, people were surprised to discover Baraka a favorite of mine, as quietly integrated and nonconfrontational a specimen as I seemed to be of America’s longest, most violently reviled minority. It wasn’t so much a matter of the quality of what Jones/Baraka had written as it was the chances he’d taken, chances in his art, in his life. Sacrifices of mind and body he endured so I could vicariously participate, safely holed up in my corner. Same lair where I sat out Vietnam, a college boy while my cousin and most guys from my high school were drafted, shot at, jailed, murdered, became drug addicts in a war raging here and abroad.
In “Fanon,” a man unable to finish his book on Frantz Fanon considers his ignorance of Fanon and Lumumba in 1961, the year both men died, when he, the narrator, was still a student trying hard to win a college scholarship, as the kind of knowledge that had been erased by his education. “Today I’m much older than these dead men lived to be, these fallen heroes once old enough to be my fathers.” He interprets the world through his unfinished book: when he learns that the Twin Towers are burning, he cites Fanon’s remark that the third world’s project is to solve the problems Europe hasn’t been able to. “The project has begun.”
But the story doesn’t concern itself with what the third world can teach the first world. The narrator mostly seems to be thinking of what Fanon wrote about interracial desire. He thinks back to a love affair he had twelve years earlier, and a trip he and his French girlfriend made to Martinique, Fanon’s birthplace, where Fanon’s face was everywhere on faded posters. The psychological cost of colonialism as exhibited by the desire of blacks for whites was one of Fanon’s subjects, and what the narrator assumes would have been Fanon’s disapproval of his interracial affair hangs over his memories of his destructive jealousy. “I hoped I could slay my demons that day by watching another man’s eyes on you, a white man no less.” The story moves into the third person to relate the hurtful, finishing fight their last morning on Martinique those years ago.
In the course of “Fanon,” the narrator remembers his French girlfriend trying to teach him some lines from Verlaine. The poet comes up again when the narrator of “The Silence of Thelonious Monk” remembers a rainy night in Paris years ago when he discovered that Verlaine and Rimbaud had been lovers and that Verlaine had shot Rimbaud. He recalls that he heard the music of Thelonious Monk coming from somewhere and closed the book:
In a way it could end there, in a place as close to silence as silence gets, the moment before silence becomes what it must be next, what’s been there the whole time patiently waiting, part of the silence, what makes silence speak always, even when you can’t hear it. End with me wanting to tell you everything about Monk, how strange and fitting his piano solo sounded in that foreign place, but you not there to tell it to, so it could/did end, except then as now you lurk in the silence.
Silence was one of Monk’s languages, he tells us, before going off on a meditation about a woman long gone that includes stories about Monk’s inaccessibility, memories of a rainstorm and Monk’s music one of the last nights he and the woman were together. He hears her comings and goings in Monk’s piano solos. His silence is sometimes broken by Monk’s music, but it is not like Monk’s music, a wait for the next thing. “I’m missing someone. My story is about losing you.”
A youth speaks from the basketball court in the powerful story “Who Weeps When One of Us Goes Down Blues,” about what happens when a teammate is injured during a game—they keep playing—but this volume’s metaphors belong primarily to the elegiac mood. “You can go a little insane trying to find something new about yourself.” Everything about Wideman’s risky, sideways method is displayed to brilliant effect in the final story of God’s Gym, “Sightings,” about a man remembering two friends from long ago, a man and a woman, drinking and hunting companions in Wyoming, who eventually committed suicide—“each death a kind of postscript to a portion of my life I thought I’d laid to rest until these painful footnotes forced me to raise my eyes to a text that hadn’t disappeared just because I’d stopped reading it.”
Wideman and his narrator, his stand-ins, have been sifting through the fragments, teasing meaning from random memories, looking for a language, or waiting for them to give him language, though so much perhaps remains inexpressible. “We’re always the hunted. At the moment of truth, when the coincidence of hunter and hunted occurs, we don’t possess the writer’s prerogative to sort out who’s who and decide where the story’s going.” And yet Wideman certainly attempts in his work to bestow recognition on the worthy and thereby impose some justice on their situations. In many ways, words have become a consolation for the writer: “You’ll never write like the great ones, the voice says. But so what, why should I. The point isn’t replicating some other writer. The point is expressing myself, being myself.” But even as isolated as Wideman makes himself with his subjects in these stories, leaving the reader on the outside, eavesdropping, the urgency that is in his prose, his riff style where rhythm takes over and thoughts come with the rhythm—his writing says that “what seems real,” the “one possibility among innumerable others,” must include the chance to connect with others somehow.