Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Another Country by James Baldwin

An essay I wrote for Patsy Moore's ezine The Bohemian Aesthetic in 2005.


Sometimes, when we consider a novel of great complexity – one about which we have conviction, one which we believe is going to ring down the ages and speak meaningfully to generations yet unborn – it pays dividends to put aside the buzz and come to the book with a mind as close to a tabula rasa as possible.  That’s not to advocate a kind of New Criticism or Intentionalist Fallacy approach, however.  Indeed, knowing a little about Baldwin, his life, his other writings, greatly fosters understanding in this case.  It’s just that the opposite is true in many cases – the buzz often completely misses the main points.
Inevitably, a reader researching Another Country will be told that it was an extremely controversial novel for its time, a lightning rod.  It takes up subjects that were simply not discussed – interracial romance, gay romance, extramarital affairs.  At the same time, though, it deals with wholly familiar and conventional subjects – racism, same race romance, straight romance, professional jealousy.  One would be wholly justified, I think, in saying the book is about human relationships and leave it at that.
This is not to say that Baldwin wasn’t interested in social issues, race relations, urban studies, matters of class and economics.  Of course he was.  The book is set in a time and place when it was impossible not to be.  Yet, at the baseline, this is a book about emotions – fragility, vulnerability, availability, the capacity to touch and feel and hurt.
Rufus Scott is a young black jazz drummer of great promise.  After a particularly hot gig, before he even gets off the bandstand, he’s approached by a shy, tentative while girl from the South named Leona.  After a few small, empty exchanges they agree to go off to a party uptown.  Let the madness begin.  (This sequence, in addition to kick starting the plot, is important for another reason – in it, Baldwin introduces a kind of expressionism that he will employ many times throughout the course of the story.  A nameless, faceless person, a virtual shadow or silhouette, is employed as a commentator on the action.  In this case it’s a sax player in the band, an anonymous sonic fury.  Later on this expressionistic commentator will assume many other forms – a pervert in a sleazy bar, a successful singer, college boys in a bar who are ‘mad with chastity’, and, most ominously, in the seemingly innumerable policemen who seem to pop up in most of the scenes.)



Rufus and Leona become lovers.  In the flow of the narrative we learnt that Rufus once had a white male lover, an actor named Eric, whom he abused.  Eric became an expatriate, going to live in France (as did, of course, Baldwin himself).  Rufus begins to treat Leona as cruelly as he did Eric, and begins to beat her because of the psychological torment the he believes she is trying to inflict upon him.  (A history of her mental illness is hinted at without much detail.)  Enter Vivaldo, a white, aspiring novelist, the linchpin of all the central characters, the center of the network.  He visits the apartment of the lovers and finds Rufus sitting on the bed, insane, brandishing a knife.  Leona, beaten back and blue, is naked in the bathroom, out of her mind.  Vivaldo provides sanctuary. Rufus shortly goes AWOL, dropping out of sight for more than six weeks.  Things end disastrously for Rufus and Leona.  Vivaldo enters into a relationship with Ida, Rufus’ younger sister, which seems to share many of the negative qualities of the other couple.  Richard and Cass are a slightly older white couple, with two small boys, who have been friends of the group for a long time.  (Richard was Vivaldo’s English teacher in school.)  They introduce Ida and Vivaldo to Steve Ellis, a television producer.  In the meantime Eric, having started to land good roles as an actor, is returning to New York to shortly be joined by his French lover Yves.  There’s crossfire everywhere: Eric has an affair with Cass and sleeps with Vivaldo.  Ida has an affair with Steve Ellis.  Vivaldo is jealous of Richard’s novel getting published, of Rufus’ success in music, of Eric’s success as an actor (“Everyone’s famous but me.”) Richard is jealous of Vivaldo’s commitment to his artistic ideals, as is the despicable Ellis.  Ida and Rufus both take out their intense racial frustrations on their lovers.  Richard mistakenly believes it’s Vivaldo that Cass is seeing on the side.  Ida accuses Vivaldo of trying to stall her career as a singer.
None of this makes for easy reading.  And by that I mean not that the prose is especially difficult but that it’s extraordinarily painful.   Much of the prose is like shards of jagged glass.  Certain sentences come off the page with such ardor they make the blood in your temples pulse.  The scenes in which Richard and Cass’ marriage begins to disintegrate can make your hands shake while you hold the book.  Early on, in flashback (flashback is a second narrative technique Baldwin frequently employs, like expressionism), Rufus and Vivaldo get whipped in a barroom brawl.  Baldwin’s skill with description here is like surgery, like a laparotomy.  The reader becomes involved.
The city, too, emerges as a kind of character, a mise-en-scene that the characters are fated to play out their lives in.  (“The weight of this city was murderous.”)  In one especially vivid episode one of the principals hurls themselves to death off the George Washington Bridge at night, in winter.  As a kind of experiment I made the trek to the bridge on a frigidly cold night myself and stood gazing down into the savage dark currents of the Hudson River subjacent, closing my eyes for a moment, imagining myself flying through the night winds to the freezing water below.  Let me tell you, Baldwin got the scene exactly right.  Most of the scenes describing the mood, feel and look of the city have this uniform high level of accuracy. (An interesting literary time line of the evolution of New York over the decades might take Another Country for the sixties; Sol Yurick’s The Warriors for the seventies; Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City for the eighties; and Don DeLillo’s Mao II for the nineties.)  Baldwin is particularly attuned to the sense of smell, frequently alluding to this stimuli around the characters.
In spite of all the confusion, betrayal, and sexual wheeling and dealing the book essentially ends where it begins.  Everyone is wounded, yet together – this can be interpreted as hopeful.  The quest for love, if not exactly satisfied, is at least understood a little better.  This frustrating, and frustrated, yearning is everywhere in the novel.  Early on, the riffs coming out of a saxophone are interpreted as meaning Do you love me?  Do you love me?  In another scene, as Cass and Vivaldo ride uptown in a cab, the radio plays a song whose chorus is Love me!  In a moment of uncertainty, as Vivaldo waits for Ida, he thinks Oh God, make her love me!  We see what is happening here – Baldwin is creating a universe in which the characters’ doubts about love becomes a self fulfilling prophecy in the environment all around them; the doubts within their own minds become objectified in the world outside themselves.  They burn, they ache, they long for love – they’re so hungry for it, and yet at the same time so ignorant as to what it is and how to attain it, that the scenarios around them begin to echo their own love starved internal cries.  What is it about love that is o elusive for these people?  At one point Ida tells Eric that love is about being torn limb from limb.  Richard is so distanced from Cass that his bio on the jacket of his novel mentions their two kids, but not her.  The title comes from a thought that passes through Vivaldo’s mind (about himself): “Love is a country he knew nothing about.”  Here’s a line that is an excellent summing up of almost everybody’s feelings: Strangers’ faces hold no feelings because the imagination does not invest them with any.  And Vivaldo’s questions to Eric:  How can you live if you don’t love?  How can you live if you do?





As well, there are numerous mirrors and reflections.  For example, Richard despises Rufus as a coward for beating Leona, yet when he learns of Cass’ adultery he hits her.  Rufus has bitter, hateful memories of the South, from his time in boot camp, and a drill instructor kicked his teeth in – both his lovers, Eric and Leona, are from the South.  Rufus and Leona are stared at with contemt in the streets, as are Ida and Vivaldo.  In Manhattan, apartment buildings “seem to be watching”; in Paris, Yves and Eric are “watched by the cathedral all day.”  We learn that, as a teenager, Eric had a black male lover in Alabama.  Ida, Leona, and Rufus are all at one point or another described as being part adult and part child, while Eric and Vivaldo “roll in the bed like children”.  The overlaps are many and obvious.  Both Vivaldo and Richard confront their women about their affairs; both women suggest they talk about it later; both men use almost the identical wording in insisting it be talked about right now.
Sometimes the symbolism Baldwin uses about racism, for example a chess set, are a little obvious and paper thin; at other times his commentary on it is very on it is quite on the mark.  He provides a skewering of white liberals in an episode in which Cass and Richard’s two sons are beat up in the park by a group of black boys.  The boys ask their parents if it was because they are white, and the parents insist this is not the reason when it is perfectly obvious to everyone that it is.  And this kind of soporific denial doesn’t occur solely with racial matters – everyone seems to be in a state of denial and willful about their sexuality and their partners.  The lone exception is Eric, who sees everything with great clarity and remarks at one point, “I think sin should be fun.”  He has no grand illusions about love and he always lets his lovers know that he is really, truly, genuinely in love with Yves.  There are no empty promises and wishes from Eric.
Another Country is both shattering and uplifting, a book that obviously took great courage to write.  It works beautifully both as a story and example of how to tell a story, executing sometimes difficult time shifts with an easy confidence, and the writing itself is often brilliant (“His fingernails were jagged and in mourning” !!).  It embraces universal concerns while being very place and time specific, and it nails the ambience of that time and place perfectly.  This is a novel that requires, deserves, and repays several careful readings. 







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