COMPANY MAN. By Brent Wade. Algonquin Books. 219 pages. $18.95.
BRENT WADE is a 33-year-old African American in Glen Burnie, not far from where he was born and raised, and from where he went to college at the University of Maryland, and from where he now works for AT&T Federal Systems Advanced Technologies.
So it is not completely startling to learn that the protagonist of "Company Man," Wade's first novel, is a young African-American executive who was born and raised in a small Maryland town, JohnGoodspeedwho attended the University of Maryland, who lives in Baltimore and who works as promotions director for a manufacturer of sophisticated computer machinery.
By so noting, I don't mean to denigrate the novel. It's a good job, written in clear, concise, often beautiful prose full of inner tension. It's a devastating but educational expose of the subtle, vicious, hypocritical battles staged in the upper echelons of American business. It's the best account I've seen of the day-to-day plight of the token black executive in the army of corporate whites.
The protagonist's name is William Covington -- always "William" to his late grandmother, who scolded him for acting "niggerish;" usually "Billy" to other blacks, some of whom accuse him of acting white; and always "Bill" to his white colleagues, most of whom constantly remind him that he's black, although some do it almost unconsciously.
Covington is the protege of the company president, a white one-time beatnik turned yuppie, and at first glance he would seem to have it made. His wife is a beautiful professional in personnel work. They live in Roland Park, the WASP enclave of Baltimore. He drives a Jaguar. She drives something almost as OK. "Bill Covington seems to be doing all right," the company president keeps saying.
But all is not well in Oreoland, it turns out. Covington discovers he's impotent. He begins hallucinating and hearing his dead grandmother yelling "niggerish" at him. And he gets caught in the middle between the president's secret plan to move the company to Mexico and the rebellious anger of some of the other black employees who suspect they'll be the first to lose their jobs.
Covington tells about this (and more) in flashback letters to a boyhood pal who is an academic genius now living in California but whom Covington cruelly rejected in their adolescence when he discovered the pal was homosexual.
Covington writes the letters (in a sort of journal form) from a hospital bed. He has suffered brain damage from a gunshot wound, but we don't learn exactly who shot him until near the end, and then we're not very surprised to learn whodunnit.
You may wish you were more surprised; this reader wishes he had been, because even though "Company Man" is a brilliant piece of work, a minor tour de force, I wouldn't call it a beacon of hope about race relations in America. I do recommend it -- to whites for what they may learn about "pampered" blacks and to blacks for what they might learn about white males: that some of them are as hostile to white competitors as they are to blacks.
John Goodspeed writes from Easton.