A love story that's lively but too 'lite'

March 21, 1994|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

Sometimes it seems this first novel's purpose is to rehabilitate the literary image of the black man. And there is nothing wrong with that.

He has been portrayed as an irresponsible lout, often weak, usually unsupportive, not up to the level of his woman.

That is not the case with "Urban Romance," which is built around a simple city-boy-meets-suburban-girl love story. The men here come in all types: devoted, pining lovers; hustlers; arrogant, opportunistic politicians.

"I am not all men," one character says. "Judge me as Dwayne Robinson, not as all black men. Too many sisters do it. . . . Don't fall into that. I am me."

Mr. George has written eight non-fiction books on black culture and the rise of rap music, among them "The Death of Rhythm & Blues" and "Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos." Those books established his reputation as an insightful social critic. But that does not mean he can write a great novel on his first attempt.

"Urban Romance" is literary lite fare, easy to digest but unsatisfying if you're hungry for a richly textured, beautifully written story. It falls short of Mr. George's best nonfiction (his book on rhythm and blues was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award). However, "Urban Romance" is a book you can enjoy on vacation; it's fast-paced, with cinema-like quick-cut scenes and believable dialogue.

One strong point is that it is not set in the ghetto. The scene is New York City in the early 1980s. Rap music is moving from underground nightclubs to the recording studios. The main characters are Dwayne Robinson, a music critic with Brooklyn roots, and Danielle Embry, a Yale graduate who leaves her publishing job to study journalism at Columbia University.

Along with their love story is the tale of Danielle's roommate, Jacksina, who's studying law and dating Judge Alvin Peters. The judge is going through a mid-life jag, stepping out on the old, dependable wife of 20 years. Add Dwayne's music buddies and a little intrigue and you end up with a somewhat interesting novel.

Dwayne is like most men in their early 20s -- randy, confused, afraid of falling too deeply in love, but generally decent. Mr. George makes no moral judgments about his main characters. He asks us to accept them as individuals, not archetypes. Even the two-timing judge has redeeming qualities.

There are some refreshing, surprising looks at life here, surprising only when compared with what has gone before. For one, Danielle's relationship with her father is healthy, loving, supportive. How strange to see that between hard covers.

"In college she would encounter other young sisters, women with stores of abuse and hostility aimed at black men. . . . Eventually she too would have her painful run-ins with brothers, but it never calcified into generalized bitterness."

Though the main characters are well-developed, minor characters are given short shrift. This is particularly true with Danielle's buppie friends, Von and Ernest, who represent a level of middle-class achievement that Dwayne finds troubling but Danielle finds appealing. Dwayne doesn't want to be a Black Urban Professional, at least not the consumer-oriented type he satirizes in his rap on buppies.

Yet, for Von and Ernest, "Listening to Miles [Davis] or reading Langston Hughes made them feel connected to a rich tradition of achievement they definitely planned to contribute to."

They are the people whose success the civil rights struggles made possible.

"Men and women, soul children and corporate clones, these buppies walked hand in hand through minefields of ambition and racism, wanting the best, mindful of the worse."

The complexity of their world deserves a deeper exploration.

Some of the book's musical references -- Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash -- might be too specific for those unfamiliar with rap's early days. Then again, Mr. George may not be going for those readers. Also, at times the book goes through name-brand overload, perhaps as a nod to consumerism, but it gets distracting.

With "Urban Romance," Mr. George has done his part at balancing the scales, giving us a sensitive black man who can almost cry.

"One layer below the surface I'm blubbering like a baby," Dwayne writes in a confession published in Essence. "I want to cry but all I can do is feel the water behind my eyeballs and the backup has me thinking I'm about to drown."


Title: "Urban Romance"

Author: Nelson George

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 284 pages, $24.95

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