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…

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