Time was when first-person novels were intensely personal affairs, opportunities to glimpse the private workings of a self too tender to be yielded up to the ministrations of third-person narrators, or to note the precise details of a love affair, a marriage, or a friendship. But since fiction has gotten more open and external, more showy and splashy, first-person narrators have become more like carnival barkers or auctioneers, people who show and tell their experience rather than explore or discover it.
Inevitably, when such events take place there will be those who will deplore the change, and in this case they will lament the absence of domestic life, the apparent coarsening of human sensibility, the tendency to be entertaining rather than serious. Those who think all novels should be like Clarissa or Great Expectations will probably not care much for any of the three new first-person novels to hand. They are all so written, somehow, so filled with words and a self-conscious sense of words, as though language might well be the alternative to humanity. Still, they are all very interesting, one being an honorable failure, the other two distinct if finally limited successes.
The Confession of a Child of the Century, by Samuel Heather by Thomas Rogers is, like Oliver’s Hamlet, about a man who could not make up his mind. Unfortunately the man in question is not the putative author, Heather, but the real one, Rogers. It begins fine and familiar and hokey and breezy. Heather, son of the Episcopal Bishop of Kansas City, arrives at Harvard in the late Forties, reads books, sleeps with a girl, is generally unhappy. The confessional habit of the older Heather looking back on all this is not one that encourages us to take it very seriously:
I took Martha to a tea parlor near Copley Square where we took tea.
“I’m leaving Harvard,” I told her. “I’m not getting anything out of the place. I’m going to go to the Far East. Will you miss me?”
She never took my lies seriously. “Will you go?” she asked.
Dull question. Even the most petite charmer can occasionally say the wrong thing.
End of scene. What Heather wants that he is “not getting” at Harvard, how he knows he is lying about going to the Far East, why we are being told this little scene—Heather’s manner presumes all these are silly questions. He is a raconteur, amusing us, catching sights and sounds of the familiar and the bygone.
When Heather has a vision, one can be relaxed and charmed about it:
I saw that happiness was the worst rationalization of all. How dared those miserable old Greeks and Hebrews with their lousy climate and incessant wars and atrocious dooms, how dared they even raise the possibility of men being happy? Socrates talking about the good life! Isaiah putting specious words into the Lord’s mouth! Comfort ye, comfort ye, saith the Lord. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished.
Ha! Jerusalem’s warfare was just getting well underway when Isaiah wrote those words. And yet both Socrates and Isaiah paled into insignificance compared to the Christian message. What a flood of false expectations had been let loose there! I thought of the early Christians, their hearts reeling with love as the Empire collapsed around them and the aqueducts dried up. Ahead stretched more than a thousand years when one could not have even a decent bath, and all they talked about was being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Well, thank God I’d seen through it all early enough so I could go through the rest of my life with a firm, sober, rational understanding that things were just going to get worse and worse.
Ask novels to be like Jane Austen, and this won’t do at all; think of Bellow’s Herzog as sophomoric in his historical insights and Samuel Heather is at best an early adolescent. But it seems to me splendid; a thousand years in his sight are as but a single sentence.
It is fitting that having lied to his girl about going to the Orient Heather does in fact go there, albeit as a soldier to Korea, and when he gets there we have a bouncy account of his induction into battle, actually learning that he is being fired at, actually deciding to fire back. But then Heather is taken prisoner and something happens to the novel. Rogers seems to have decided that at this point the fun and games are over and that he really wants to write a Bildungsroman, a Sons and Lovers or a Portrait of the Artist. In the prison camp Rogers surrounds Heather with a lot of other prisoners who don’t like him and, we see, with good reason. But the moment this happens our relation to the book is forced to change, from listening to an entertaining “comical-historical-pastoral,” as Heather calls it, to seeing the painful limitations and needs of a spoiled, educated, callow, aggressive young man.
For this new purpose Rogers’s original mode is all wrong. All might have been well had Rogers tried to drop the chatty tone and thereby indicate that such tones are possible only to the breezy young. But though the tone does get more somber and strident, the superficiality of Heather’s vision of himself defeats whatever changes in tone Rogers was trying to dramatize. When Heather decides to defect to China, for instance, after giving us a slambang account of how Truman came to believe in voluntary repatriation, he says it was the decision of a moment. The trouble is that we have too little to go on to see it as anything other than a whim, a novelistic signal for new adventures, a petulant judgment by Heather against the other prisoners, perhaps, or a dimly understood retaliation against Daddy or Harvard. Then when Daddy becomes important in the novel, we are asked to believe that Heather’s whole problem is being the son of a man who serves The Son, but we have no private or personal Heather on whom this possibility can register as anything other than a joke.
Finally, when Heather goes to China and meets and falls in love with a Chinese girl, we are told we will hear nothing of their private life because Heather eventually marries the girl and she, Mrs. Heather, doesn’t want personal affairs discussed in her husband’s public confession. You can get away with that kind of nonsense in a raconteur novel, maybe, but when we are being asked to figure out what happened to Samuel Heather, we can only be affronted by the presence of a censoring Mrs. Heather in a novel by Thomas Rogers.
Thus it is that for long stretches in the second half of the novel one longs to help Rogers, to see that the tone is just right after all, to deny that the novelist is trapped. But it won’t do:
I feel I am not giving my girls a sufficiently impressive image of fatherhood to get through life with. And certainly they’re not going to get much from the young men I see around these days, urban rubes with their hair in a braid. One of the main reasons we’re going to Paris is to get the girls away from American boys for a while. Keeping children virginal is a mighty task. I’ve begun to appreciate Father’s efforts along these lines. His argument seems to me more and more irrefutable. One cannot give oneself to everyone. It’s both foolhardy and vain.
This comes at the very end, where we will know how to read rightly, if we ever will. One sees immediately the bankruptcy of this voice: Heather is involved in sexual competition with the potential seducers of his daughters; he is afraid and in flight; he cannot begin to remember accurately the conversations he had with his father about sex; he is pompous, and so foolhardy and vain himself. But we can only guess if Rogers wants us to share this view, and my guess is that, on the contrary, he would like us to be both convinced and amused by Heather as much at the end as at the beginning. Even if Rogers does want us to see Heather’s bankruptcy and blindness, he has long since given up finding ways to make him interesting, whether as raconteur or defeated and pathetic hero. The sadness is that after a fine beginning we gradually cease to care.
Don DeLillo’s End Zone is often similar to Rogers’s novel in tone and manner. It fails to solve all its problems, too, but it is on the whole much more successful. DeLillo’s essential engagement is not with people but with words, with modern jargons, with the almost torrential power organized and systematic language can have to invade and dominate a life, with the possibility that our country is unrecognizable to itself except when we are inside the wombs of technical vocabularies.
DeLillo starts off even more brilliantly than does Rogers. We are in a tiny college in western Texas, and the subject is football. A man who has started and scrubbed out of collegiate careers at Syracuse, Penn State, Miami, and Michigan State is talking to us from Logos College, where the landscape is like the moon. We are primed for a book where the jock is king and for a world that would be totally inarticulate except for football. Here is the coach addressing his team, without pre-emptive comment from the narrator-fullback:
“Write home on a regular basis. Dress neatly. Be courteous. Articulate your problems. Do not dragass. Anything I have no use for, it’s a football player who consistently drag-asses. Move swiftly from place to place, both on the field and in corridors of buildings. Don’t ever get too proud to pray.”
A football novel indeed. It’s only a game, but it’s the only game. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
But then we are thrown off guard. A player named Bing Jackmin talks like this:
“Reality is constantly being interrupted. We’re hardly even aware of it when we’re out there. We perform like things with metal claws. But there’s the other element. For lack of a better term I call it psychomythical…. Ancient warriorship. Cults devoted to pagan forms of technology. What we do out on that field harks back. It harks back.”
Then there is the narrator’s roommate, Anatole Bloomberg, who weighs almost 300 pounds:
“History is guilt. It’s also the placement of bodies. What men say is relevant only to the point at which language moves masses of people or a few momentous objects into significant juxtaposition. After that it becomes almost mathematical. The placements take over. It becomes some sort of historical calculus…. A million pilgrims face Mecca. Think of the power behind that fact. All turning now. And bending. And praying. History is the angle at which realities meet.”
If football is still there, or nearby, we are no longer in any football novel we know. Soon a ROTC professor and a zoologist are talking as though they were from the Rand Corporation or the University of Chicago, and someone who lives down the hall is taking a course in the untellable.
Best of all, perhaps, is Myna Corbett, who is vastly overweight, wears outlandishly bright clothes, and talks like this:
“I don’t want to be beautiful or desirable. I don’t have the strength for that. There are too many responsibilities. Things to live up to. I feel like I’m consistently myself. So many people have someone else stuck inside them. Like inside that large body of yours there’s a scrawny kid with thick glasses. Inside my father there’s a vicious police dog, a fascist killer animal. Almost everybody has something stuck inside them. Inside me there’s a sloppy emotional overweight girl. I’m the same, Gary, inside and out.”
So it goes, a contemporary museum without walls. Out where we city types expect the locals don’t know that Logos College is a joke, the language cascades forth, transforming people into lives that seem lived on the moon. Don DeLillo is terribly up-to-date, but in not altogether bad ways. If someone puts signs on walls saying MILITARIZE, someone else must say, “I-z-e words make me nervous. I go underground.” Of course. We all live in Logos College.
Which means that, whatever else, End Zone is a book you can be engaged in. By muting his narrator’s voice, by filling the sound track up with some surprising sounds, by taking football both very ironically and very seriously, DeLillo gains a metaphor for contemporary life that spares him the necessity of delving into the psyches of his characters as though he were in fact inward with them. To say which does imply a limitation, of course, and I think that finally End Zone does not know what to do with itself, does not know what would make it a book rather than an idea orchestrated with sounds. The trouble, of necessity, is with the narrator, Gary Harkness, who is much more reserved and unimportant than Rogers’s Samuel Heather, and therefore much easier to take. When Harkness is telling why he left all those colleges up north, he can treat himself externally and fabulously and we don’t mind at all our not understanding him. At Logos, so long as his tasks are to play football and to listen, he also does well. Through the book’s first climax, a splendid replay of the season’s key game, End Zone is untouchable. But after that it gets uneasy.
If I read DeLillo rightly, he is saying that the immensely organizing, expressive, and suffocating jargons of our life give our existence focus, and help keep from us our isolation, our confusions, and our penchant for violence. Harkness tells his ROTC professor that the phrase “thirty million people dead” does not do justice to his sense of nuclear holocaust, by which he means he wants a language more vivid and fascinating, one that can satisfy his need to be violent and terrified but that is still language and therefore protective, satisfying. Or, Myna Corbett has two friends, sisters, who appear now and then. One is “into carrots” and the other is “into miracles,” and one winces, knowing that if they were not “into” something they would by nothing at all. DeLillo is being satiric here, but his target is not jargon but its users.
But these are all facts, not actions. The only way for something really to happen in End Zone would be for America itself to change. DeLillo tries, but his narrator is just stuck because that is the point about him, and so DeLillo is stuck too. Harkness can get stoned before a late and unimportant game because the excitement of the season is gone, and he can play furiously in a pick-up game in the snow because he and everyone else relish the violence of smashing into people. But these actions are only extensions of the book’s central metaphor, and so pretty soon it has to stop, gagging, baffled, successful, defeated. At the very end we have this:
In my room at five o’clock the next morning I drank a cup of lukewarm water. It was the last of food or drink I would take for many days. High fevers burned a thin straight channel through my brain. In the end they had to carry me to the infirmary and feed me through plastic tubes.
It is the mark of DeLillo’s control and of his being trapped that he knows these must be the book’s last words. It is an honorable and eloquent cage, but cages confine and remain stationary. He writes well and sees much, but to say that End Zone is a book where nothing can happen to anyone is to state both its vision and the limits of its effectiveness.
Anold Kemp’s Eat of Me, I am the Savior also is limited, but the moment we come to see its limits we can also see why it is a very good novel. Kemp has been hearing voices too, but real things happen to his narrator, so that the sounds when put together make an action, a book, not just a metaphor. If Logos College turns out to be a surprisingly good place from which to hear what is happening, Kemp’s Harlem is even better. Of course Harlem is a cage, but Kemp and we have always known that, so the fact of the cage must cease to be the central vision and must become the landscape for events that make a difference.
Kemp himself is a youngish black who left school at fifteen, drifted into jobs, and into the Air Force, and into crime. He ended up serving seven years for armed robbery, and he began writing while in prison. His story sounds so much like that of Malcolm X that it is not the least surprising that at the beginning of the novel is a scene that is patently based on Malcolm’s murder. One Nicholas Said is a Muslim who has just broken with The Prophet, and we soon learn of a Reverend who owns Harlem votes and of a Doctor Lovall. It all seems familiar and predictable. Furthermore on every page there is some pretentious or effortful writing which reminds us that its author came to writing relatively late, and in prison. But what we are not at all prepared for is the way the writing is nonetheless bright and expressive of a dense imagination surveying a varied scene. We see this early; on the second page, as hordes of blacks meet to listen to Nicholas speak, we have this, about the policemen assigned to keep order:
Taking deep, measured breaths, they swallowed the pungent odor of cheap fresh paint applied to walls yet unclean. With sullen dismay they watched the mass of black limbs increase, blossom, as if emanating from the very walls, the drooping tapestry, the curling rutted carpet. Still they did nothing, said nothing, merely stood, hands locked tightly to their sides. They didn’t like this assignment. None had wanted it. It was a shaft detail, a quandary that had to go wrong: no matter what they did it would be wrong. They had explicit orders from downtown not to interfere, not to officiate, just be there. They knew, however, that even this non-interference would be construed negatively: they would be cited for police apathy against Harlem turmoil and subsequently blamed for all damages.
Casting a cold eye, one sees this is a first novel. To have that mass of black limbs increase, then blossom, and then emanate, or to have a quandary go wrong, is to care more about the sound or heft of words than for their meaning. But one sees, too, that these are just blemishes, and that whatever Kemp is setting us up for, it is not for simple polemics or rehashes of history. Those cops didn’t have to be in the scene at all, but the fact that they are shows that Kemp has kept his eyes open, eager to see the diversities of Harlem.
The novel that follows is something of a version of Invisible Man done in the manner of Chester Himes, to say which is to note how right Ellison’s book still seems and how potentially illuminating the private eye novel can be. The key figure is Yaquii Laster, who sees his leader, Nicholas, shot, kills two of the assassins, and returns to Harlem after a stretch in prison full of plans and ideas for taking power in the black revolutionary movement. Yaquii resembles a private detective because he is forced to try to figure out on the spot all the plots and plans of every other black man with power or push, and to discover as he does so that his return has placed all that power in motion, for him and against him. What makes Eat of Me, I Am the Savior resemble Invisible Man is its receptiveness to Harlem’s variousness and density, its way of showing life too diverse to be manipulated even though Harlem is always receptive to demagogues and saviors. What is wonderful is what happens when Kemp puts the two parts, the private eye part and the Ellison part, together.
Here is Yaquii, his first day out of prison, seeing Harlem come home from work:
The young women that I had missed seeing on the street during the morning were now pouring from the belching trains. They looked tired, dead tired; in one fashion or another they had all been dealing with white shit all day, and their anger and resentment bubbled up into their proud heads. I could see it in the needle thrust of their eyes in unguarded moments. But they were home now—no more white shit for another day. That thought alone wiped the false “for-whites-only” smiles off tight mouths and bathed full soft lips with real honest black laughter. Proudly, breasts jutted and thighs twitched and unbelievable heavenly curved asses began to switch and sway every which away.
Sentimental, one says, as well as overwritten. Twenty pages later we have this:
Black women. There is no love in them, only a deep burning vindictiveness, a rage at being created the unfortunate mates of unmanly men. Their wombs have been hardened by eons of indiscriminate ravishing until the very walls, the very cells are permeated with a sliding hate-terror of life.
Sexist, surely. Then this:
No black woman was to blame. We had failed them. The unfortunate mates of unmanly men. Yeah, that’s where it’s at. But not for long, I promise. Black men will rise like mountains out of lava ruins. You called us a “black plague” and you were right, Shirley, but there is a catch: the sickness is in my own personal malignancy. My Sickness. And I’m going to spread it, baby. I’m going to infect the whole world.
Perceptive, yes, but hysterical too.
But when these and all the other passages come together they must clash, and so modify and set each other in place. On every page we are hearing something new, and each person or voice or idea is put before us as though it were the last word. But by virtue of their juxtaposition and of Yaquii’s insistent movement they become a kind of witty demonstration that no voice or idea has permanent validity. Thus, right after Yaquii triumphantly announces the new black plague he wants to go back to Shirley, Nicholas’s widow, and comfort her. Instead he meets Shirley’s daughter, the one person Nicholas had asked him to look after, and soon he very untriumphantly rapes her:
“Close your legs,” I ordered peevishly.
She looked at me as though I was crazy, then drew her knees up, shaking her head sympathetically. “Am I your first woman in seven years?” she asked me.
I told her she was.
“That’s fitting,” she answered. “Because you’re my first man in twenty-one.”
I sat up and looked down at her: blood smeared her thighs and the rug. She looked directly into my puzzled frown. “I’ve been a lesbian since I was fifteen,” she informed me with no emotion whatsoever.
What earlier had seemed sentimental, sexist, and hysterical still seems that way, but we sense that Yaquii sees that and sees the need to move away from his earlier ideas. It is the role of the plot simply to force and enable Yaquii to do that moving and that seeing, to ask him to take each of his positions fully and to act upon them, then to fail and to blunder onward. To be in Harlem, finally, is to be all the things Yaquii says and sees.
As can be imagined the book works entirely in vignettes, so the cast is huge for a relatively short book. There is the whole rainbow of political leaders, but many who are before or beyond politics: a Diogenes who roams through Harlem every night with a lantern looking for one honestly black person; a lovely girl who shares her bed with Yaquii while he is suffering from amnesia after a bomb blast; an immensely rich and cynical man who is content to let whitey define him and to scorn those who think they can beat the man, but who is eager to help Yaquii escape when he is being chased by everyone; a marvelous old woman who laments the passing of a time when you knew uneducated blacks were porters and educated ones were undertakers and deplores the present because “now they is all snitchers. Never seen so many black police.”
After a while, one begins to try to imagine types that Kemp hasn’t put into his book somewhere. But even if Kemp has self-consciously taken a census of the entire city, he also knows how each fits into his action, his and Yaquii’s violent lurch toward discovery. Because it is violent Kemp does overwrite a lot, but there are fine and sweet moments of wryness or quiet, even near the end.
Perhaps the finest passage comes late, after Yaquii has killed a rival political leader who has tried to kill him. Just as after his rape of the girl Yaquii is forced to face his own folly and criminality, so too here, in a despairing aftermath, he sees what he has done:
Habib was dead and it didn’t change a thing. They had six more in his place already. Six hundred more if needed. After all they bred and conditioned their own. We’re programmed into supreme belief. No matter what they say, we believe it. “The American Ideal can be a reality!” We believe. “Race prejudice is un-American.” We believe. “Peace through war!” We believe. “…one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all!” We believe. “The greatest threat to America today is from the Left!” We believe. Tell us anything, we’ll believe it no matter how absurd; all they have to do is print it, preach it, whisper it in a john over a flushing commode.
“Most responsible Negroes want to work within the system.” Yessuh, mistuh boss, suh, ah sho do. It dem udder ignant niggers dats makin’ it hard of’ all us. “Jesus’ mother was a virgin.” Hail Mary, Mother of God. “All black women are whores.” Shet up hoe and do what I tell you to do ‘fore I puts my foot up your ass. That’s what’s wrong with you sapphires now, too goddamned much mouth. “Oriental women got slanted pussies.” Oh God, Yoka, I believed it, just as you believed I had an eighteen-inch dick. We both heard it in the alleys in the gutters in the woods.
Tell us, tell us, O White Man. Tell us how money is the answer so we can spend our lives working harder than any people in the history of the world, then after we’ve worked our lives away, when we’re old and ragged and still scraping the bottom, tell us how shiftless and lazy we are for not having anything.
No sentimentality or sexism or hysteria there, but a loving generosity toward all blacks, and a humor that forces all of us to remember what a strange, strange country we all live in.
There is no need here, I hope, to review all the things that are not right about Kemp’s book in particular or about the private eye novel in general. When you do nothing more than take snapshots of people, there’s a lot about life you just can’t see. Furthermore, it won’t do to say, as Norman Mailer does on the jacket copy, that Eat of Me, I Am the Savior is “a bold novel which takes many chances.” The genre within which Kemp is working is too clearly defined for that to be true. But it is a fine novel. Not as well written as DeLillo’s or as some of Rogers’s, it offers more reasons than theirs do for having been written in the first place.
It is beginning to look as if the extravagant first-person novel with all its variations is now so richly established that it offers what every interesting genre must offer: a way for people who are just beginning or whose talents will never be first-rate to write books that matter. No genre or sub-genre that has these three books as part of its showcase need fret for its immediate future. This is DeLillo’s second novel and Kemp’s first. We still seem to be finding things to do and to care about to keep us from having to go to the movies.
June 29, 1972