Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Untimely Reviews: Go Tell It on the Mountain

I have a problem in that when I add something to my mental to-do checklist I can’t let it go until I get around to it. Maybe it's not a problem, but sometimes it feels problematic, as in: I should be able to let some things go. Add reading to the mix and the problem compounds. In a sense, I’m a bit of a book hoarder. I collect the ones I have loved to read, feel I should read, want my children to own. I’ve only read a portion of them, though, and I continue to put other books on my Christmas lists, and I’ll even buy an occasional book on a whim. This, I foolishly do with plenty to read at home. I almost never read books from the library, and I certainly don’t give any books away, or trade any in to the used store. Instead, I buy more shelves.

It’d make me look good if I said I don’t have much time to read, but the truth is that I don’t make the time. If I cut out a few hours of televised-sports viewing a week, or eliminated a few evenings of pounding cheap cans of beer, I’d probably have time to read everything in my basement in three months. But let’s stick with the realistic angle.

Some seven years ago, I sat through my first grad.-school workshop. If you’re unfamiliar with this process, here’s how ours worked: Everyone in class picks three sessions from the semester calendar. When one of your sessions approaches, your responsibility is to e-mail the professor a story the week before. The professor then e-mails the class your story. The class comes to the session with three things: an edited hard copy, a one-page response to your piece, and a readiness to discuss. You, the author, are required to sit in silence while everyone hashes out the positives and negatives of your story.

Like many things, having your writing workshopped gets easier once you've done it, but man -– that first one is brutal.

My first story wound up being, according to this professor, the strongest I submitted over two years in the program, but it was then, and still is now, full of flaws. The consensus regarding the largest of said flaws for that first story was my decision to include a large amount of dialect. The piece takes place in the south, and the main character is this redneck guy. It just seemed to make sense at the time to phonetically spell out syllables and hyphenate words for emphasis. This, I did, in addition to dropping lots of ‘g’s off of i-n-g words and replacing them with apostrophes.

During the workshop, and for some time after, I was baffled by the fact –- and I do realize now that it’s a fact –- that the use of this dialect was a major distraction. When I finally understood this, I felt foolish having spent so much energy crafting it. One specific statement about that workshop stuck with me, and it came from the lips of my professor:

“I mean, if you wanna learn how to write dialect, go read ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ or something.”

Some people, when their pieces are being workshopped, sit there and soak it in. Others take feverish notes. I am part of others, and therefore, I scribbled that title down. Had I not, it might have been gone forever.

I didn’t read anything that wasn’t school required until I finished the program, and I haven’t read a ton since, either. I did, however, get invited –- two years ago -- to participate in this little event hosted by Prospero’s book shop (link). What they wanted to do was break the world record for longest continuous poetry reading, which they did. Sort of.

Now, I love Ireland, and their fabulous product we all know as Guinness, but apparently, if you want Guinness to acknowledge your feat, you have to fly them to your event, put them up, and probably feed them and liquor them up before you fly them home. This book shop keeps a tiered shelf of dollar books outside of the shop all day and all night, so this wasn’t exactly in their budget. They did record the entire event and send it to Guinness in hopes that they would bend the rules, but no dice there.

We did, however, break the record, and I made several appearances in that stretch reading some of my very own, very terrible poetry.

The point is this: I popped in to the store to sign up for my reading slots, and while I was there I purchased a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, because, well, the wife and I were expecting. I don’t know what percentage of husbands successfully execute spouse-ordered errands, but I know this: I am outside of that percentage, and this task was no exception. See, I got the book, and seeing as how it was at a used book store, it was a real bargain. Problem was, I bought the one that was published in like 1991, or something, and as you might imagine, a lot in the world of birthing has changed in the past 20 years, and so yes –- they have put out an updated version of this book since then. More than once, I think.

So there I was, at Prospero’s again, explaining why I needed to return this book and select something else -- we got the newest version of What to Expect off of Amazon -- to replace it. I really dig Prospero’s, but there’s not a lot on their shelves that I either don’t want or don’t already own. I checked the pregnancy section first to see if there might be something of interest and when there was not, I perused the rest of the upstairs. When I couldn’t find anything, I went down to the basement, and after browsing the various sections, I moved to the paperback fiction shelves and started at author-name ‘Z’.

I was literally, seconds away from giving up (in the ‘Ba’ section) when I saw Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. There were actually two or three copies there, which seemed like a bad sign, but my mind was made up, and I was on my way home.

I didn’t get around to reading it for a year and-a-half, but it was there, in my basement, at my disposal for whenever the time seemed right. I’m not sure why, but after I finished Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, something told me that it was time to tackle Baldwin. It was time for me to learn what I was supposed to learn about writing dialect.

Allow me to be frank: When J.D. Salinger died, I imagine some folks felt compelled to revisit (or maybe take in for the first time) The Catcher in the Rye. I’d read that book about seven times, and given my tendency to not make time to read, I couldn’t justify doing so again. Instead, I decided I’d reread Franny and Zooey. It didn’t take me too long to realize why I didn’t comprehend much of it the first time around: That book, for all of the great writing moments in it, is a terrible read. I mean, we’re talking borderline torture. At one point, the wife mildly pleaded with me to quit.

That is, she didn’t really care, but I think a portion of her is embarrassed by how little I read, and how ugly it is to have that be a truth for a person that wants to write for a living. It’s some sort of quiet, Andy Dufresne-y mental battle I have wherein I know that it’s “time to get busy living or get busy dying,” but I’m like a child at the edge of the high dive for the first time. The thought of jumping is petrifying; the thought of going back might just be worse.

Anyway, I’m glad that I revisited that book, that I can now actively recall what it’s about, that I have no problem encouraging readers to avoid a book written by the first author that ever inspired me. I mean, really moved me. For that, I give thanks to a junior named Moon Dog in my freshman science class. Chad Meise was his name, I think. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember he said to me, “You know what I do when I’m feeling a little depressed? I read this book.”

As he finished that sentence, he produced a copy of Catcher from his backpack, or his desk, or his pocket. I dunno. But I remember feeling astonished by the statement, even more so by the fact that he had a copy of the book on him.

But I’m also glad that I finished it. I can’t ever recall choosing to read a book and struggling through it. I think for the most part, I’ve always opted to read books I knew I’d like. I’ve definitely been assigned plenty of books that were bears to finish, and I don’t ever recall feeling glad. Thankful, maybe, that it was over, but not glad.

I haven’t decided for certain, but Go Tell It on the Mountain might have been worse.

I don’t say that because I want to convey the notion that it’s a bad book. It’s not, or at least I don’t think it is. I’m sure that there was a lot of importance to it when it came out in 1953, and Wikipedia tells us that it’s been included on a couple of big-time lists, and I know now, having read it, that it was important for a suburban-raised white guy like myself to have read it.

But it was hard.

Like, brain-hurt hard.

A couple of years ago, Greg Schaum was working for KCSP 610 AM, and he tweeted that he had a pair of free tickets to the KU vs. Cornell game for the first responder. I got them, and it should have been obvious that the massive snow storm that had already started was why he was not going to make the trek to Lawrence. The wife and I should have stayed home as well. But I couldn’t resist; I hadn’t been to Allen Field House since middle school, maybe high school, back when my boy Doug Hays used to take me all the time. The wife had never been. We had good seats, the game was super-high energy, and the Jayhawks stole an ugly victory at the last minute. It was so wonderful to be back in the Phog, and I’ve been itching to get back in it again. On the flip side, we almost didn’t make it home.

My ticket to that game was my book mark for Go Tell It, and I’ll bet I looked at that ticket a dozen times throughout the first 20 pages of the book. Lemme tell you -– those pages were torturous. I mean, I knew I was in for it when the opening line was, “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.” What I didn’t know was that 19 pages later, we would still be talking about the church and going to church and the lord and God and Jesus and Sunday-morning service.

I probably had to backtrack 10 times in the opening 20 pages to try and keep the characters straight because the religious stuff was so heavy on the eye glaze. Not that Baldwin is pushing it on you like some born-again, rather, he’s pouring the concrete scenery of how huge the church was in this family’s life. I mean, I’ve met some holy folk in my day, but this stuff was beat so heavily into my brain that I frequently felt like looking around for the tree root that I might could've used to get me out of that literary quicksand.

So I developed quite a relationship with that ticket stub. It was the window of my Geometry classroom, if you will, the sanctuary in which I was free, and willing, to zone out in when the stuff coming at me just was not resonating at all. Bill Self looks poised and handsome on the front of the ticket, and I’d look at him and look at the look on his face and trail off thinking about how angry I’d been when Roy Williams left, how certain I’d felt that we’d never find someone as good, how confused I remember being when the Self hiring was announced.

And mostly, I remember how good it felt, and still feels, to have been wrong. I felt the same way when Larry Brown left and Williams proved me wrong then, but it was just different. Brown had won us a championship and announced that he was leaving Lawrence for the N.B.A. Williams came in and wasted little time generating approval; teams were so stacked and so good for 15 years, yet that big one always remained out of reach. And then, when he basically lied to the press to save face, it felt like what I imagine it feels like to get stabbed. Not in a fatal spot, but maybe in the love handle, where it probably messes you up for a little while and hurts pretty good, too.

Anyway, I’d look at Self, and I’d think about what he’s accomplished since leaving Illinois, the plethora of incredible articles that have been written about him. I’d think about that game, and that drive, and how I vowed to get Bosch windshield wipers the next day –- which I did and haven’t regretted once –- and how the Fieldhouse felt and looked so different after all these years (Editor’s Note: I’m bigger and older than I was last time I was there. I also sat in different seats and have killed quite a few brain cells since those days. Oh, and they’ve remodeled.

Every once in a while, when I was really bored, I’d flip to the back of the ticket and think about how I never took advantage of the 20-percent-off coupon to Perkin’s on the back. And that’d make me think about how I always chose Perkin’s as my reward-for-a-good-report-card meal out. I can’t remember what sandwiches, particularly, that I loved, there, but I know I was really into their sandwiches. My mom always thought it was so weird that I’d choose Perkin’s. Thinking back, I think it’s pretty weird that I’d order sandwiches for dinner. It’s possible that the food wasn’t even that good, but eating hot sandwiches that were buttered and griddled was such a step in the opposite direction of what my sack-lunch sandwiches always consisted of: Carl Buddig lunch meat on grocery-store egg buns.

Seriously. Every day. I’ll bet that, between the years 1987-1993, I ate over 2,200 of those sandwiches. I was a pretty picky eater as a kid, and I think it was just a crapshoot one day that my mom put some Carl Buddig meat with a piece of cheese and some mustard inside an egg bun (and I liked it), and since it worked, she stuck with it. Every once in a while, she’d say, “I can’t believe how much you like these eggroll sandwiches.”

I never had the heart to tell her that I got irreparably tired of them –- turkey, pastrami, ham, you name it –- about 75 sandwiches in, but when someone’s making lunch and dinner for you every day, you just kind of keep your mouth shut and eat. Well, not at the same time. You know what I mean. So, yeah. Hot, buttered sandwiches. And pie. They had pie. Actually, they had a ton of desserts in this glass case up front by the register, which always struck me as odd. Not as odd as the fact that I always investigated the case’s contents and seldom selected anything from it, but odd, nonetheless.

But the sandwiches and the dessert case and the flag out front. I don’t know if every Perkin’s is like this, but the one we used to go to –- off of Shawnee Mission Parkway –- had this gargantuan American flag out front. It was so huge that it enchanted me. Literally, you could see this thing from like, Arkansas and the whole time you’re approaching it, it just keeps growing and growing, until you’re finally driving past it and are, in fact, underneath it.

It was the craziest thing to watch this thing flap in the wind. And “flap” is a joke of a word to use there. This thing would ripple back and forth in an illusion of slow motion, almost as if someone were inside with a joystick, manning the thing. Speaking of jokes, no way you operate this thing with, say, the joystick from an Atari 2600. Too small and fragile. You’d need some kind of mechanism like the crew of the Flying Dutchman uses –- to what I imagine is to lower and raise the anchor –- in those Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The flag, though, is massive. If that Perkin’s were a ship, you could sail to frickin’ Rio with that flag as the cloth on your main mast.

Speaking of sandwiches and Pirates of the Caribbean, I don’t know why those movies take so much heat. I like them. I will say this, though: The fact that Davy Jones can just turn into an octopus and smash ships in half with his tentacles is bologna.

Anyway, I zoned out a bunch trying to get going with this book, as you may have gathered.

When I struggled through Franny and Zooey, there would occasionally be some drinking and debauchery, which will pull you in if you’re into that sort of thing (Note: I am.), and the same is true when a character lights up a cigarette. The opposite, regarding the latter, is the case in Franny, as someone is smoking for the entire book. I mean, if both characters on the page aren’t smoking, then one of them is chain smoking. It is nothing shy of disgusting, and it made me think I was licking an ashtray the entire time I was reading it. The problem with that book is that it is so freaking drab.

The only time one person isn’t bitching and moaning and whining is when someone either interrupts them with some whining of their own, or someone is worried and complaining.

In Go Tell It, there’s also drinking and debauchery and smoking, but holy cow is it dark. No, that’s not some snide bit of bigotry because nearly every character in the book is black. I mean, the motif, the theme, the everything in this book is dark. As a matter of fact, the only time it might not be actually dark outside is when they’re in church or traveling to and from it. If that’s accurate, nicely played, Mr. Baldwin. Nicely played. The contrast, though, involves the characters in Franny drinking and smoking out of leisure; in Go Tell It, they're doing it to curb depression and anxiety. At least that's how it seemed.

But, for the most part, these are the things that happen in this book: beatings, weeping, death, theft, rape, infidelity, lying, and sorrow, all of which are blanketed by poverty. The only time these concepts are not in the immediate foreground is when conversation is happening, and when conversation is happening, it’s almost always about Jesus or the Lord or what’s going to happen to those that follow in God’s path.

So, while the dialogue gives the illusion that the story is uplifting, it’s actually not. At all.

Here’s the other thing, and I’m not going to tiptoe around it at all: the word “nigger.”

If I remember correctly, I don’t think any white people speak in this book, and that word appears in it quite a bit. We all have our own issues with this word, whether you like it or not. I am of the camp that does not, and I can’t really recall many occasions in which I see it in print, let alone often within the same passage(s).

My issue is this: That right there, is an ugly, ugly word. It’s ugly to hear. It might be even uglier to read due to its permanence, and I can now say that it is ugly to type, too. It, like curse words, stands out on the page. You can see it coming paragraphs and paragraphs away, on the other page, even. Even in a book with old, pictureless pages that are crammed with small-fonted sentences buried in paragraph-riddled pages that can’t even remember the days in which they weren’t a faded yellow, that word stands out.

I haven’t really given it a ton of thought, but the word might be the ugliest I’ve ever seen it in this book, because it’s a hateful word created by one group of people about another group of people but, in this case, it's being used by the group of people it’s about, and they’re using it in reference to one another. I’m no black historian, so maybe there’s something about using it to refer to others, but the way in which it’s used in Go Tell It sure seems derogatory and condescending.

It really made me uncomfortable, like the first time I saw Boyz in the Hood. I tried to find this scene on YouTube, but to no avail. Regardless, it’s the first run-in Tre has with the lovely Officer Coffey, the one where Furious’ house gets broken into early in the film, right after Tre moves in with his dad. When the cops come, the conversation goes like this:

Furious: “Well, somebody broke into the house. I fired at him with my piece, and he ran away.”

Officer Coffey: “So you didn’t get ‘im?”

Furious: “Well, if I got ‘im he’d be laid out here in front o’ you, right?”

A few moments later:

Officer Coffey: “You know it’s too bad you didn’t get ‘im? Be one less nigga out here on the streets we’d have to worry about.”

I suppose it’s important to note the difference in spelling between the two, but in that scene –- and the one later on in which he puts a gun to Tre’s throat, Coffey uses the g-a ending with anger and gritted teeth, so regardless of pronunciation, he meant the ugly version.

And although it doesn’t come off as nasty in 60-year-old print, the same meaning is implied with the use of this word in Go Tell It.

So, distracted and uncomfortable are two ways to describe what reading this book felt like. Another, I’d say, would be depressed. Here’s where, perhaps, some of the value for a white guy reading this book comes in: By no means do I want to generalize or draw absolutes of any variety, but my own vague knowledge of American history tells me the following:

The country, as a whole, would have –- at least by the book’s publication date –- made some strides in recovering from the Great Depression. It’s possible that Baldwin, who was not quite 30 when it came out, had been working on the book for some time, but it doesn't really matter either way. What does is that the country, as a whole, meant “white Americans” in 1953. When Go Tell It came out, Brown v. Board of Education hadn’t happened yet. Neither had Rosa Parks. The March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act itself were a decade away still.

The thought, then, is that if white America is perhaps still reeling a tad from the Depression aftermath and perhaps from the conclusion of World War II as well, then black America, who hadn’t even had their rights recognized yet, must have been as dismal as Baldwin’s Harlem portrayal. Again, not wanting to generalize, I don’t imagine that all blacks were as down on their luck as the characters in Go Tell It, and I don’t presume that Harlem is like anywhere or everywhere else in the country, but if your federal government hasn’t recognized your rights, and the country is still getting back on its feet –- or on its feet already if you consider the explosions in science, technology, and pop culture from that decade -- then there wouldn’t appear to be a whole lot that you could control, which is why, in a sense, putting absolutely everything you have into your faith, your God, and your church would be logical.

The problem, as Baldwin illustrates, is that if religion and spirituality are your only hope(s), how are we supposed to control our human desires, curb our tendencies to err and to sin? Or, rather: If God will deliver, and we’re certain that God hears us, why is life so full of despair? And why do we continue to make poor choices? God is our light. God is our direction. Yet all around us is dark, and we therefore wind down the wrong path more often than we prefer. That seems to be the conflict in the book, and it's hard to tell if the characters carry forth in blind faith or if said faith is a satire, a notion with rapidly decreasing social value.

That’s about as philosophical and theoretical as I can get or want to get, be it about this book or most anything else. It was, at best, a difficult read. It was a challenge to stay motivated to finish it, and in the end it would’ve been so much simpler to just thumb through it and find some examples of quote/unquote how to write dialect.

But I’m glad I read it and I’m glad I discovered -– via writing this quote/unquote review –- what the value in reading it was for someone raised in a time, an area, and a family entirely different from the Grimes family of Baldwin’s first book. My only remaining curiosity is what my African-American contemporaries (read: black people my age) think of the book, and maybe one day I’ll know.

Meanwhile, I've never been so excited to move on to something more uplifting.