Novel mixes poverty and superstition

June 23, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

Susan Straight is in love with words, the way they sound, the images they suggest, the energies they possess. Here she describes the protagonist of her second novel, "Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights":

"Darnell worked in a cloud of moving grit, and only the sliding drops of sweat carried the dust from his forehead, his neck. He stayed away from Jackson Park, working all alone in the gas station, feeling the black heat rise on the asphalt all around him until he imagined that he looked like one of the zombies from the alley, his eyes sunk gray into his skull, his palms permanently gray. Zombies, he thought, blinded by the whirring wires of the edger."

Ms. Straight is white, but she is able to write convincingly from a black point of view. She is also able to write in black dialect, which makes her previous novel and this one remarkable. It also makes both novels hard to read.

The blackness in the book's title is a gigantic pun. Its many levels of meaning reverberate throughout this story, while referring back to "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All The Pots," Ms. Straight's first novel, whose protagonist, Marietta Cook, is a woman of "blue-black color."

Marietta practices the black arts, while speaking in Gullah, a regional black dialect that is difficult to understand. Midway through the novel, Marietta moves to California, where she becomes friends with Roscoe, a middle-class black entrepreneur with a penchant for poetry. Roscoe becomes one of the major characters in "Blacker." Marietta is mentioned and seen but takes no important part.

Marietta's way of speaking, however, is important to this second novel. So are her superstitions, which Ms. Straight plays as a motif in the story.

Several of the characters speak Gullah. Others speak black English; only a few speak standard English. Since the story is told mainly through dialogue, the narrator speaking only a paragraph or so per page, the book requires effort to stay with. Generally, the effort pays off. Yet the story, moving though it is, would gain if dialect were used more sparingly.

The story is about racial injustice-- racism, poverty, drug addiction and violence -- as they affect several members of a black community. They include Darnell, an unskilled laborer, black youth in his early 20s, new husband and father; Brenda, Darnell's industrious and capable wife; Charlotte, Darnell's baby daughter; and Roscoe, middle-age owner of a gardening business, father to Leon and Louis.

Roscoe, losing Louis in a gang war, rails against the unnaturalness of a parent burying a child: "Not in the poemlike lines he usually spun around them. 'Official papers -- you don't want to fill out official papers on a child. It's wrong. Wrongest thing I've ever written.' " Roscoe protests the wrongs besetting the characters in the story and by extension besetting black people living in the inner city in the 1990s.

Since Louis and Darnell were close friends, Darnell is strongly affected by his death. Besides, what happened to Louis could happen to Darnell; he, too, is victim to the circumstances that killed Louis. This includes victim to the suicidal depression that besets the young black men in this story.

In addition, Darnell is supposedly being called to his death by the spirit of his dead twin. Ms. Batiste, his mother-in-law, has told him this, as have some older members of his family. Superstition also has it that Darnell, who was born with a caul over his face, can see into the future. Much of the conflict concerns Darnell's fear of, and fascination with, fire. Possibly, he sees his death by fire.

Brenda and Charlotte, Darnell's wife and daughter, worry. Their survival is threatened by anything that endangers Darnell. This suggests the point of the novel, which is not merely the blackness of poverty, or prejudice, but how and why that blackness perpetuates itself.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights"

Author: Susan Straight

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 388 pages, $21.95

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