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.

Get Down by Asali Solomon


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This is an article I wrote in 2008 about Asali Solomon's remarkable first story collection.






                                    Asali Solomon's Get Down (2006)




                                    Have you ever heard the song Me and Mrs. Jones by Billy Paul?  What, in your opinion, are the lyrics about?  File this question away for a few minutes while we consider a couple of the stories in Asali Solomon's first collection Get Down.  By the way, if I tell you that this collection is about groups of African-American and Hispanic teens and young adults in Philadelphia you'll probably think that the title is as in "Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight," right?  If so, you're  only partly right.  One of the central concerns of this book is language itself and how often it can be malleable, bendable, shapeable, take on forms and meanings that catch us off guard.  Herein, words are not just vehicles of expression but marvels, objects of fascination; sentences, wondrous carriers of emotions and thoughts that are not so easy for the characters to put into communicative speech.  (Which is a possible explanation for why seemingly everyone is so into music.)


                                    There are seven stories in the volume.  I'll concentrate on just two here for reasons of economy, and in regard to one I'll focus on something that is admittedly not the crux of the story but something I find personally fascinating.  These  two are the stories that bookend the volume;  of course, the other five are equally interesting. ("The Star of the Story" operates at perhaps a different level of sophistication and observation than some of the others.  I heard Solomon read from this great story at the KGB Bar in New York).  All seven share some elements, naturally.  One, "Save Me," is experimental.
                                    "Twelve Takes Thea" and "First Summer" both develop unexpected endings (the second moves on the last page to a kind of reflexive metafiction not previously seen anywhere in the volume; there, Solomon inserts herself- as-storyteller into the tale and speaks directly to the reader) but not the kind of surprise, shocking twist endings of thrillers; instead, these endings are revelations.  The happenings contribute to the emotional educations of the characters and make us, the readers, reflect back perhaps on similar events in our own lives.  The ongoing process of the acquisition of maturity is the phrase that comes to mind.  A seventh grade girl has her first experience with deliberate, calculated lying  that's designed to be malicious, and is mystified to discover that the same capacity exists within herself; a young man is amazed to learn, many years after high school, that a girl in his high school class was infatuated with him all those years ago. 
                                    Thea is a sixth grader.  When her best friend Nadja transfers to another school at the end of the year it seems like the end of the world, though her new school is not so far away and they can still see each other and talk by phone often.   Seventh grade begins with some new girls, among them Frances Dyson and Beth Johannssen, whose name is a curiosity and mystery because she is clearly of Indian background.  Frances replaces the departed Nadja as the second black girl in the group, though, as Thea thinks, she looks so ghetto (Thea's word) and Thea is not sure what to make of her.  The rub:  Thea's parents try to force a friendship between Thea and Frances:

                                                            Eventually, the Black Barrett parents (the BBPs) were going to get together, and if my
parents went to the first meeting, or tea as it was sometimes called, and met Frances' parents, and if there was any indication that I wasn't carrying her on my  back, saving her seats, or showing her how to flush the antique middle school toilets, I would be very sorry.t's a given that racial identity is a great concern in Thea's life  - although, at her age, it seems to be an open question as to what degree she can effectively deal with perceptions of the self in this way - and this is established definitively and immediately within the first fifteen pages or so:  

                                                - Thea's  brother Stephen derisively calls her "Jane" as a kind of derogatory name for white girls;
                                               
                                                - a teacher in the school cannot tell Thea and Nadja apart;
                                               
                                                - Thea takes the bus from urban Philly, where she lives, into Bryn Mawr, where the school is, every day, prompting one schoolmate to remark "I hear there's pools of blood on every corner in Philadelphia"  - the implication being the whole city is a violent black slum; 
                                               
                                                - Nadja's new school is one where nuns still dish out physical punishment upon the children - she observes to Thea, "Your parents would never let you go anywhere white people get to beat you.";
                                                 
                                                - when Nadja is about to leave Stephen says "Now you're really gonna be a wanna Jane."

                                                - upon first seeing Frances Thea thinks, "Frances was black.  I knew that my parents would be very excited about this."

                                                - when Nadja and Thea gossip on the phone about Beth Johanssen Nadja observes, "She probably thinks she's white."

                                                - Thea and Beth have a little game where they pretend everyone at the school looks like an animal;
when Beth identifies Frances as a monkey Thea wants to protest this cruel racism but doesn't, for fear of hurting her own relationship with the 'cool' Beth.



                                    This leads to the story's second major theme, which has to do with issues of peer pressure, acceptance, being a part of the in crowd, etc. - things which are so desperately important to kids of this age.  The magnitude of Thea's adolescence is perhaps best symbolized by the incredulous awe she exhibits on learning that Frances has a boyfriend.   Then, when Frances calls her an Oreo, she's stung but  seems to conveniently forget her own earlier characterization of Frances as being too ghetto.  But the real point has to do with the web of relationships Thea has with a few of the girls - Nadja, Frances, Beth, and a girl who is only peripherally introduced as one of the most popular at Barrett, Liza.
                                    Thea veritably worships Beth Johanssen to the point where she begins to copy her habits like wrinkling her nose or the way Beth dances ("I tried to do what she did.')  She whines to Nadja every time they speak, her inability to deal with the latter's move to another school simply consuming her emotions ("You never want to go anywhere with me.")  In the end Beth, Nadja, Liza and Frances all connect to Thea in a surprising way, through a sequence of lies which are impossible to anticipate.  It happens, however, that Solomon has thoroughly prepped us for the finish in a kind of under the radar way ("Incidentally, Nadja was the sole Barrett girl my brother didn't call Jane" and "A lot of people hated me there," she (Beth) once told me at lunch.) Interesting too is the depiction  of  the manners, etiquette and ritual behaviors of the school dance.
                                    One of the really remarkable things Solomon can do here is transfer us back to grade school with such accuracy it hurts - it's almost painful to be reminded of what we regarded as important then.  Thea says of Beth Johanssen, "Even wearing some off-brand of tennis shoe, she was clearly the prettiest girl in the class."  And though Nadja has gone off to another school and hasn't met Beth, by the end of the story Beth has penetrated Nadja's circle of communication somehow, within a small degree of separation, and the results are unsettling for Thea.  Sensitivity to language, and thus to the objects and concepts in the world that it refers to, gives us insight into Thea's  very soul - italicized appearances of sadistic, psoriasis, and East Hell flow through her consciousness with ease once she gets their meanings as spoken by others.  (This comes up again in "Party On Vorhees!", in which the character Sarah has her hypersensitivity awoken by spoken nonsense such as "Around the way.")  Sentences that express familiar adolescent thoughts and behavior such as "I decided to wait out the slow songs in the bathroom" (at the dance - Thea has this idea because none of the boys ask her to dance and she's embarrassed) get the whole mood so right that they are both aching and gladdening at the same time. We come to see that the author, from the perpsective of an adult, is able to put an objective twist on the narrative that the characters themselves would be unable to understand.
                                    In "First Summer" race is more of a blunt issue than in "Twelve Takes Thea".  Delayna works  the register at a clothing store called Urbanicide, causing Rufus to remark "I didn't know they let black folks get near the money there.  They sure don't like me getting near the clothes."  Part of Delayna's rejoinder to that is, "It's basically my job to make sure black people don't steal."  The racism and racist policies under discussion here don't need to be finessed, nuanced, or danced around as in the earlier story - and part of the reason for this is that the characters here are more grownup, although school days indeed play a role once again. 


                                     In summary: Rufus lives with his girlfriend Shanna and their newborn son in the house of Shanna's mother Alba.  One morning as he waits for the bus on his journey to work he meets up with Delayna, who recognizes him from high school.  At first she says nothing about this, waiting to see if he will recognize her, but he doesn't.   Only later, after they meet for a movie and go to her place, the exact degree of her interest in him comes out fully:


                                                            She says, "You can't go yet.  I'm not done telling you my stupid problems.  You know, I didn't get to do all this in high school, when you were dating cheerleaders and going to basement parties every night."

When Delayna lets Rufus in on a surprising secret, and he suggests they take sick days at work in order to be together to work on it, he has mixed feelings about betraying his family.
                                    Now, this story has texture sufficient to support a study just as long as the story itself, but I should like to stress  something that  jumped out at me as I was reading, something which must be very hard to do in  short fiction because we don't see it much.  I'm talking about secondary characters who are so strong that they exert  immense influence over the tale in spite of appearing only briefly, and stick in the reader's mind with exceptional vividness.  If you'd like clear examples from another medium, the movies, think of Mickey Rourke in Body Heat or Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise - brief, but monster, impact.  Here the character of Tony, Rufus' friend, functions in that fashion. 
                                    Tony was a classmate of Rufus' and Shanna's in high school where, we're told, he cut classes so often that the other students gave cutting a name - "hangin' with Tone."  To have this universal student rite named after oneself is probably the ultimate way to confer status.  Tony is a mystery though.  In spite of being the champ of cutters and a pothead, "He's been employee of the month  in their department so many times that Rufus has lost track."  Not only is he a star at work, but when Shanna agitates Rufus the first thing Rufus thinks of is how Tony handled (or didn't handle) a similar situation  with his own girlfriend - his behavior is a standard to be compared to.  When Rufus meets up with Delayna and has to concoct a lie to cover himself, he says he's going to have a drink with "Tone and them"; Shanna later uses this exact expression, "Tone and them" - who is 'them'?  We're never told, they're never identified, and obviously they don't need to be.  It's not "Bill and them" or "James and them".  And Tony is the only person Rufus speaks to about Delayna. Although he can't quite bring himself to reveal the truth, Tony knows it anyway - "Rufus, man, all it takes is one false move."  In her book The Principles of Literature Christina Myers-Shaffer lists seven methods of characterization: stereotyping; exposition; the character's actions; the character's words; the character's thoughts; the words of others; and the use of setting.  Tony, in this story, is portrayed to us by all seven of these methods - a remarkable feat!  In The Art of Fiction David Lodge writes that "Character is arguably the  most important single component of the novel."  Notwithstanding that these are stories, but the idea applies equally, and this story in particular is a fantastic illustration of the claim.

                                    Sometimes the greatest way to appreciate an accomplishment in art is to feel the truth being extracted out of your own memories and experiences, almost like a tooth being pulled, and being brought to light as a more preponderant, ecumenical affair.  That happens here.  I can tell you I hadn't thought about episodes of my own high school years for decades, but these stories made me do that, made me reflect - and made me smile, nod, wince, and almost cry a couple of times in the process.


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