McPherson's 'Crabcakes': Nostalgia, musings

January 18, 1998|By A. J. Sherman | A. J. Sherman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Crabcakes," by James Alan McPherson. Simon and Schuster. 281 pages. $23.

It all begins promisingly enough, this memoir that opens recalling a sentimental attachment to Baltimore itself, and to the elderly black couple who lived in the red-brick, ramshackle rowhouse that the author owned there for long unprofitable years. Bought impulsively at auction, the house with its sagging porch, chronically malfunctioning furnace and general shabbiness has a character instantly recognizable to those who know Baltimore, and the reader wants to know more about its history and those who live in it; but the author-narrator is not to be hurried. An academic now teaching in Iowa, he is drawn slowly down meandering paths of association, beyond his time in Baltimore to remembrance of past dangers and humiliations, including a frightening, for a black young man potentially lethal, encounter while driving an unregistered car along a remote Southern country road, where he was arrested by a foul-mouthed white sheriff whose itchy trigger finger is chillingly recalled. The author's nostalgia for Baltimore and unsatisfied ache for connection converge in his search for the ultimate crabcake, which he finds in the Lexington Market after much wandering through Baltimore streets named and remembered with affection. Savoring fresh lump crabcakes, fragrantly steaming from their hot-oil bath, McPherson exults: "this is the body and blood that had been lost."

After that passionate experience of transubstantiation, his memories and the book drift down into a murk of shadowy incident, mystical speculation, vignettes of a mostly happy sojourn in Japan, and much portentous psychologizing, including an episode in which a tow-truck rope becomes an umbilical cord linking the unwilling author to two drunken white men attempting to rescue him from a minor accident. McPherson's elliptical, unpersuasive explanation for abandoning two Japanese friends one evening, a tiresome narrative that emerges in fragments from much diffuse prose, leaves one at last feeling mostly impatience, heightened by the author's chronic use of italics to indicate emotion, and the shower of undefined Japanese words and phrases that he sprinkles like so much random seasoning into turgid musings about feelings and existence. Once the Baltimore house and its sympathetic inhabitants have been left behind, it is a rare reader who will summon up the fortitude to trudge through

McPherson's labyrinth of dreams, quotations, Orientalism, episodes of withdrawal and abstract padded philosophizing at times capsizes into incoherence.

James Alan McPherson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his "Elbow Room," a collection of short stories, uses a cracked ceramic bowl, presented as a gift by one of his Japanese friends, as a point of departure for a final excursus on Japanese esthetics, the wounds of the self and the nature of human attachment. He tells us in conclusion that accepting imperfection "tends to make one much more human." "Crabcakes" is by McPherson's own criteria indubitably human; but its formless self-indulgence and lack of autobiographical candor become both tedious and dispiriting. Unlike the Lexington Market variety, these crabcakes fail to nourish.

A. J. Sherman, whose most recent book is "Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948," lives in Vermont, where he teaches History at Middlebury College.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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