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 her in a typical (indeed stereotypical) posture. The action then leaps forward ten years to a future Christmas, and we find ourselves at the headquarters of Zumwalt’s North Pole Development Corporation in Alaska. Plans are underway to move the corporation to the North Pole itself, where it is to be housed in a domed city called Christmas Land. At the moment Vixen, who has risen high in the organization, is preparing Santa for his annual flight to New York, where he will greet department-store executives and toy manufacturers before the grand welcome to the city that will inaugurate the official Christmas season.
At the risk of overloading the reader’s capacity to absorb a plot summary, I will say further that a secret cult of St. Nicholas (the Nicolaites) has arisen; that the “real” Santa (a former actor in soap operas) is replaced by an imposter under the control of the little black ventriloquist (who has also usurped the leadership of the Nicolaites); and that the male model, now president of the United States, is taken by the spirit of St. Nicholas on a ghostly visit of the American Hell, a tour that results in a Dickensian change of heart.
There is nothing subtle about Reed’s satire. The ghosts of Eisenhower, Truman, and Nelson Rockefeller, whom President Clift encounters during his descent into the underworld, all perform much as they would in the pages of Mad Magazine. Occasionally Reed uses a bludgeon: Truman’s ghost can’t sleep for fear of dreaming of “Japanese faces, burnt, twisted, and peeling, with no eyeballs”; Rockefeller, damned for his role in the Attica uprising, is taunted on the manner of his death. But mostly the ridicule is as cheerful as it is broad. Here is a bit of conversation between members of the new power elite who gather in the Oval Office to offer advice to Bob Krantz, the TV executive now running the country in the president’s name; they consist of an ancient admiral, a Western beer-magnate, and an evangelical preacher:
“How’s business?” the Admiral asked the Reverend.
“Pretty good,” the Reverend responded. “Opened a few more mail-order colleges last week. Prayed for the sick, and warned the wicked. Krantz, you’re doing a good job,” Reverend Jones said. The Admiral nodded.
“I owe it all to you. You, the Admiral, and the King of Beer. I guess I’d still be working for Babylonian television were it not for your intervention, Reverend Jones.”
“That wasn’t me, that was the Lord, son. The Lord’s advice is worth more than ours. Never forget that, son.”
“I don’t,” said Bob Krantz. “I speak to the Lord day and night.”
“Good boy,” the Admiral said. “Stay on your knees. That’s the best position for running the state.”
The poor, the blacks, the Indians might, if they read the book, draw rueful enjoyment from the small victories that Reed’s partisanship allows them, but the Fat Cats, if they read the book, will find little to make them wince and nothing to make them lose sleep.
Reed must be tired of hearing from reviewers that he should take more responsibility for his inventions, that he needs to hold on to them longer and squeeze them harder before tossing them away. But such criticism is inescapable. While Reed’s clowning is sufficiently entertaining as one turns the pages, it isn’t, in the long run, clever enough, bitter enough, or (above all) funny enough to nourish the reader’s imagination after the book is finished.
There is nothing cool or throwaway in Alice Walker’s attitude toward the materials of her fiction. The first book by this exceptionally productive novelist, poet, and short-story writer to come to my notice was Meridian (1976), an impassioned account of the spiritual progress of a young black woman, Meridian Hill, during the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and its aftermath. Traumatized by sex and premature motherhood, prone to seizures and bouts of paralysis, essentially unpolitical in a highly politicized context, Meridian evolves into a kind of Mother Teresa of the rural South, emptying her life of all personal strivings in order to bring help—immediate and tangible—to the impoverished, the politically deprived, the imprisoned, and the mad within the black community. Though beset by serious structural problems and other lapses of craft, Meridian remains the most impressive fictional treatment of the “Movement” that I have yet read.
In The Color Purple Alice Walker moves backward in time, setting her story roughly (the chronology is kept vague) between 1916 and 1942—a period during which the post-Reconstruction settlement of black status remained almost unaltered in the Deep South. Drawing upon what must be maternal and grandmaternal accounts as well as upon her own memory and observation, Miss Walker, who is herself under forty, exposes us to a way of life that for the most part existed beyond or below the reach of fiction, and that has hitherto been made available to us chiefly through tape-recorded reminiscences: the life of poor, rural Southern blacks as it was experienced by their womenfolk. Faulkner, to be sure, touches upon it in his rendering of the terrified Nancy in “That Evening Sun,” but her situation, poignant though it is, comes to us largely through the eyes and ears of the white Compson children; similarly, the majestic figure of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury is, for all its insight, sympathy, and closeness of observation, a white man’s portrait of a house servant, idealized and, one imagines, subtly distorted by the omission of those moments of sickening rage (as distinct from exasperation) which must have been an ingredient in Dilsey’s complex attitude toward the feckless and demanding family that employs her. The suffering, submissive women in Wright’s Native Son are no doubt authentically portrayed—but again from a man’s point of view; furthermore, they are city dwellers, poor but still different from the dirt-poor countryfolk.
The Color Purple is, unexpectedly, an epistolary novel that consists, for much of its length, of letters addressed by the principal character, Celie, to God, the only being to whom she can communicate without shame. Later, there are letters to Celie from her long-separated younger sister, Nettie—letters which Celie’s husband withholds from her for many years after they were written; and finally there are a handful of letters from Celie to Nettie, who lives in Africa. The communications to God begin when Celie, at fourteen, has been raped and impregnated by her stepfather (whom she believes to be her real father); her half-crazed mother is dying. Here, in full, is the second letter in which she cries out her confusion and pain:
My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the tray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don’t say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand an cryin, talking bout don’t leave me, don’t go.
She ast me bout the first one Whose it is? I say God’s. I don’t know no other man or what else to say. When I start to hurt and then my stomach start moving and then that little baby come out my pussy chewing on it fist you could have knock me over with a feather.
Don’t nobody come see us.
She got sicker an sicker.
Finally she ast Where it is?
I say God took it.
He took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kilt it out there in the woods. Kill this one too, if he can.
Her two babies taken away, Celie, who regards herself as already ruined, does what she can to protect Nettie from their Pa’s advances and to see to it that the younger girl studies hard in school. Thin, very black, told always that she is ugly, Celie has such a low opinion of herself that she meekly submits in marriage to an older man (always referred to by her as “Mr. ______”) who wants someone to look after his four motherless children. After Celie’s marriage, Nettie leaves home, moves in with Celie, and then, after having unintentionally aroused Mr. ______’s lust, disappears from sight for nearly a hundred pages. Poor Celie is left to take care of her husband’s “rotten” children and to endure both his slam-bang love-making and his beatings. She finds herself a helpless drudge both to Mr. ______ and his oldest son, Harpo, who refuses to help her with the household chores on the grounds that they are “women’s work.”
Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr.—say, Cause she my wife. Plus, she stubborn. All women good for—he don’t finish. He just tuck his chin over the paper like he do. Remind me of Pa.
A few years after the marriage help comes from an unexpected source. Shug (for “Sugar”) Avery, a blues singer whose picture has already fascinated Celie, comes to the neighboring town to perform at the Lucky Star; Shug and Mr.—have been lovers in the past, and when Shug falls ill during her singing engagement, he brings her home for Celie to nurse. The meeting of the two women is memorable:
She not lying down. She climbing down [from the wagon] tween Harpo and Mr.—. And she dress to kill. She got on a red wool dress and chestful of black beads. A shiny black hat with what look like chickenhawk feathers curve down side one cheek, and she carrying a little snakeskin bag, match her shoes.
She look so stylish it like the trees all round the house draw themselves up tall for a better look. Now I see she stumble, tween the two men. She don’t seem that well acquainted with her feets….
Under all that powder her face black as Harpo. She got a long pointed nose and big fleshy mouth. Lips look like black plum. Eyes big, glossy. Feverish. And mean. Like, sick as she is, if a snake cross her path, she kill it.
She look me over from head to foot. Then she cackle. Sound like a death rattle. You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believed it.
Celie and Shug become loving friends and eventually (in a mild, understated way) lovers. Through Shug, who is bold, passionate, and outspoken, Celie slowly learns to stand up for herself and to resist the tyranny of men; through Shug’s sisterly embrace, she discovers the sensual possibilities of her hitherto unawakened body. Shug puts a stop to the beatings. When Celie finds out that Mr. ______ has been hiding all the letters from Nettie, she wants to kill him but is restrained by Shug. Celie learns that Shug, for all the “shamelessness” of her behavior, not only believes in God but tries to realize Him in her own full-blooded response to life. Like Meridian, The Color Purple is steeped in a religious element that, however unconventional in its expression, seems to flow directly from the piety of churchgoing Southern blacks—a piety which Alice Walker respects and defends.
The bonding of oppressed women is obviously a major concern of the novel. The network includes not only Shug but also the strong-minded, strong-armed Sofia (who marries Harpo, fights with him, and leaves him), Sofia’s sisters, and Mary Agnes, known as Squeak, who also leaves Harpo in order to become a singer. In this world of farms, shacks, outdoor privies, juke joints, and small-town stores and churches, the sexual and marital alignments are constantly shifting. Shug takes up not only with Mr. ______ (known to her as Albert) and Celie but also with a big-toothed husband named Grady and a nineteen-year-old boy. Squeak takes up with Grady after Shug discards him. Girls, married or not, get “big” almost as soon as they reach puberty. As the fathers come and go, the babies they leave behind are cared for by an extended matrilineal community that includes grandmothers, aunts, and sisters.
Divorce is never mentioned and presumably does not exist as an option. Though capable of murderous jealousy, the women on the whole support each other warmly and band together against the common enemy: man. The humor, heroism, and endurance of the women are constantly extolled—and contrasted with the foolishness, selfishness, and, often, the sheer brutality of the male sex. One is hard put to find, either in Meridian or The Color Purple, a male character presented in really positive terms; in the latter novel only the few white characters (of both sexes) are depicted as negatively as the black men and they—the whites—impinge only sporadically (if disastrously) upon Celie’s world.
I cannot gauge the general accuracy of Miss Walker’s account or the degree to which it may be colored by current male-female antagonisms within the black community—controversial reports of which from time to time appear in print. I did note certain improbabilities: it seems unlikely that a woman of Celie’s education would have applied the word “amazons” to a group of feisty sisters or that Celie, in the 1930s, would have found fulfillment in designing and making pants for women. In any case, The Color Purple has more serious faults than its possible feminist bias. Alice Walker still has a lot to learn about plotting and structuring what is clearly intended to be a realistic novel. The revelations involving the fate of Celie’s lost babies and the identity of her real father seem crudely contrived—the stuff of melodrama or fairy tales.
The extended account of Nettie’s experience in Africa, to which she has gone with a black missionary couple and their two adopted children, is meant to be a counterweight to Celie’s story but it lacks authenticity—not because Miss Walker is ignorant of Africa (she has in fact spent time there) but because she has failed to endow Nettie with her own distinctive voice; the fact that Nettie is better educated than Celie—and a great reader—should not have drained her epistolary style of all personal flavor, leaving her essentially uncharacterized, a mere reporter of events. The failure to find an interesting idiom for a major figure like Nettie is especially damaging in an epistolary novel, which is at best a difficult genre for a twentieth-century writer, posing its own special problems of momentum and credibility.
Fortunately, inadequacies which might tell heavily against another novel seem relatively insignificant in view of the one great challenge which Alice Walker has triumphantly met: the conversion, in Celie’s letters, of a subliterate dialect into a medium of remarkable expressiveness, color, and poignancy. I find it impossible to imagine Celie apart from her language; through it, not only a memorable and infinitely touching character but a whole submerged world is vividly called into being. Miss Walker knows how to avoid the excesses of literal transcription while remaining faithful to the spirit and rhythms of Black English. I can think of no other novelist who has so successfully tapped the poetic resources of the idiom.
August 12, 1982