Novel form is thin veil for autobiographical experiments with black identity

March 08, 1992|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times


Darryl Pinckney.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

295 pages. $22.95. The narrator in "High Cotton" is a graduate of Columbia University and, from all indications, a writer. His father's profession is not mentioned, but he lives in Indianapolis and belongs to the fairly well-off middle class. His grandfather was a Congregationalist minister. His great-grandfather was a Baptist minister. His great-great-grandfather was a slave.

So where does that leave author Darryl Pinckney? That is the point of "High Cotton" -- Who am I? Or, more exactly, how do I think of myself? -- except for a quibble. He calls his book a novel, not an autobiography, so although the narrator is his alter ego, the thinnest of veils floats around him. Not to get tangled in it, and since the narrator is given no other name, I shall call him Mr. Pinckney. If you can have a fictional autobiography, why not a fictional review?

But the veil is also the point. Mr. Pinckney is a literary intellectual for whom to discriminate is more important than to declare. Postmodernist irony and ambiguity are as much a part of his identity as forthright affirmation has been for contemporaries and predecessors in the Black Power and civil-rights movements; or as a contradictory yet resilient discourse of pride and patience once was to his ancestors in the South, or what he calls "the Old Country."

Mr. Pinckney (his creator of the same name went to Columbia and won a Guggenheim, a Whiting Award and a Princeton fellowship) is trying to place himself in black history. Not to do so would betray his forebears, and particularly the grandfather around whom many of his musings revolve. But to do it in slogans or simplifications, or anything but his own intellectual terms, would betray himself, and also those same forebears and that grandfather who thought for himself to the point of eccentricity and isolation.

The result is a book that is allusive and elusive, cloudy and gleaming by turns, that skips many narrative connections and can seem indifferent to being grasped, that plays tag with its readers, in short. Yet when it lets itself be caught, it can be astonishing. And the reader suspects that the elusiveness is not arbitrary, or not only arbitrary. Mr. Pinckney is on what may be an impossible search, and on such a search you don't want followers who keep asking where they are. It is a search for a language to speak of himself in.

A child of the '50s, and attending Indianapolis' best public

schools, young Mr. Pinckney saw no great need to identify himself as black. He tended to think of himself as English, in fact. He daydreamed of being crowned king of England, and explained London's subway system to family friends going abroad. In high school, he dabbled in black radicalism and attended a few meetings of a tiny offshoot of the Black Panthers. He had no car, though; a white friend had to drive him. At college, he was regarded skeptically by his activist friends who referred to him as "Dr. Thomas" (Uncle Tom with a degree).

It was not so much a gap of sympathy as of speech. The affirmations used by activism were alien to him. Yet he considers, bemusedly, the tortured language of denial that he heard in his family as a child. It had evolved through generations of proud and educated black people who made a life and found dignity for themselves under segregation. The advantage of Jim Crow, an Alabama aunt declared, was that it kept you from contact with uneducated whites. Separate but superior.

In his comfortable home in Indianapolis, the word was: "All men are created equal." Even so, "Lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow." They read, in part: "You were just as good as anyone else. . . . But you had to be close to perfect just to break even. You had nothing to fear, though every time you left the house for a spelling bee or a Music Memory contest, the future of the future hung in the balance."

Most of "High Cotton" is made up of selected episodes and reflections that are Mr. Pinckney's experiments in ways of feeling black. Some are told with an awkward, chilly reluctance. A time spent in London as a would-be down-and-out radical is inert; so ** is his time as a Paris expatriate in the company of a Holly Golightly-like black woman who is able to love only white men. Absent is any mention of contemporary personal relationships. In view of the full portraits of other relatives and forebears, it is interesting that only a cursory mention is made of the narrator's parents.

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