Post-Movement fiction bridges the racial divide

On Books

February 24, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

A week ago in this space, I wrote about a novel in which I found truths and guidance about the volcanic, delicate forces and intricacies of racial awareness. It was The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate (Scribner, 223 pages, $23). At the suggestion of a faithful reader, I turned immediately to another novel, Meeting of the Waters, by Kim McLarin (Morrow, 338 pages, $24).

Southgate's book had offered moving insights into the experience of being an African-American in mainstream American society. Such perceptions are elusive to most whites, whether because of isolation, fear, latent racism or lack of interest. McLarin's book is equally conscience-searing and is also ultimately affirming -- but in a markedly different manner.

The two books come to black-white race consciousness from diametrically distinct vantages. In Southgate's book, the most troubled and troubling African-American man is a classics teacher, the sole minority faculty member in a century-old, ivy-encrusted New England boys' boarding school. A Harvard graduate whose mother drove him to rise and blend into the white middle-class world, he is unrelentingly colorblind -- almost to a fatal fault. His foil is a young black scholarship student of similar background, but with a burning if still evolving sense of the value and vitality of his black identity.

The key black character in McLarin's novel is Lenora Page, called Lee, who has risen to a seriously impressive level of professionalism as a newspaper reporter. Like Southgate's black teacher, Lee is also a product of extraordinary matriarchal diligence -- but with a mother, Eda, who defines herself by the exclusiveness of the Movement: "To Eda the idea of befriending a white person, even on a superficial level, was as incomprehensible as trying to befriend a rhinoceros."

The human conflict that serves as the screen for projecting race awareness and distinctions is the developing love story between Lee and a white man, Porter Stockman, a middle-class suburbanite in his late 30s -- corn-fed with milky skin, strawberry blond hair and freckles -- who is also a reporter. She is 34, beautiful, black and has huge brown eyes. She saves his life as they, still strangers, are both covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots precipitated by the acquittals of the policemen who notoriously beat Rodney King.

Lee had spent her working life almost entirely with white men and women, and her entire private social life exclusively with blacks. Porter had worked with and been remotely friendly with blacks, but had never had a date with a black woman.

After the riot, Porter tries and fails to find Lee, and then is delighted when she turns up at his paper, the fictional Philadelphia Ledger, which has hired her away from The Baltimore Sun. He thanks her, and then begins wooing her. The story line of the book is the course of their courtship. But that is simply the vehicle for a larger drama -- a courageous, painful, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes exhilarating examination of whether it is possible in contemporary America for intelligent, uncompromisingly honest women and men to cross the color barrier and fall in love.

From the beginning, McLarin writes fluently, competently. Good, clean dialogue. Her reporting of newspapers and newspapering, of Baltimore and Philadelphia -- things I know something about -- is solid in fact, tone and texture.

As Lee is drawn toward Porter, McLarin handles their flirtations and excitements deftly, with sure confidence, delicacy and irony that saves the reader -- this reader anyway -- from the senses of embarrassment or intrusion that are common in literature of intimacy.

The book is about "crossing the line" and McLarin seems utterly fearless in pushing that question to ultimate tests. There are subtle, strong details about attitude, about contrasts between black and white experience -- more descriptive than judgmental. Increasingly, Porter comes to recognize the immensity of the race gap: "If you were a white man and you listened to Muddy Waters you were a leech preying on the cultural munificence of a people you gleefully oppressed. If you worried out loud about the possibility of being jumped by a murderous thug some late, dark night you were a racist using code words to spread hate."

The love story is a very straightforward vehicle, the growing involvement between Porter and Lee, and the concurrently increasing difficulties that their closeness raise among friends and family, colleagues and parents, even cashiers in restaurants. Their love forces the difficulties of race discrimination to be projected on every facet of their individual lives.

McLarin is very good at the anatomy of race consciousness. She artfully slices up stereotypes by confronting them head on, but never preaching. The roots and tendrils of fear and need and isolation and insulation are traced through black and white people alike -- and, at least to me, equally convincingly.

But Meeting of the Waters is the work of a talented novelist who is still developing her craft. Some of the events seem contrived -- unnecessarily. The straightforward story moves through devices that could be subtler. To do so, however, would hold the danger of demanding a different narrative voice, compromising the stark, brave simplicity of the one McLarin has chosen.

There is energy, tension -- and utterly believable and sometimes almost unbearable suspense -- until the very last page of the book.

Like Southgate's work, it is a piece of a growing and important body of literature seeking to explicate the deeper truth of race divisions in the United States. And like Southgate, McLarin speaks for the generation that is beyond -- but not too far distant from -- the anger, violence and solidarities of the civil rights movement of the 1950s through the 1970s.

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