by John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin, 175 pp., $23.00
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 …