Richard Powers' 'Singing' -- the intractable story

January 26, 2003|By Martha Southgate | By Martha Southgate,Special to the Sun

The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 672 pages. $28.

Richard Powers has been resting on the edge of wide renown ever since his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. His formally inventive, fluidly written work has earned him prizes aplenty and warm critical notice, if not bestseller-sized sales. In his massive new novel, The Time of Our Singing, he takes on the nation's biggest and most intractable story, that of race. He wrestles with it manfully, often beautifully, but in the end, one has to call it a draw.

One can't fault Powers entirely -- the subject has eluded some of our finest writers, a company in which he definitely belongs. And there's no denying the formidable intelligence and passion that illuminates much of this carefully constructed novel. But in the end, one comes away without characters to hold onto, without a sense of lives fully lived on the page.

The Time of Our Singing tells the story of David Strom, a German-Jewish physicist who meets Delia Daley, a black classically trained singer in the crowd at Marian Anderson's historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Swept up by the magnificence of the moment and by an unshakable naivete and optimism, they date, marry and produce three children, Jonah, Joseph and Ruth. Jonah grows up to be an extraordinarily gifted classical singer, reaching his peak just as performing the kind of music he most loves becomes the worst kind of sellout for a black man. His brother, Joseph, the novel's primary narrator, is his accompanist onstage and in life.

Their sister, Ruth, darker-skinned and not as riveted by music, finds herself gradually caught up in the radicalism of the 1960s. The three are swept up and tossed by the currents of the time, not fully equipped to deal with the racial realities they are confronted with by virtue of their parents' stubborn colorblindness.

The strongest parts of the novel are the exquisite set pieces, like the long description toward the novel's beginning of the gathering of the crowd at Anderson's concert. To quote a small section doesn't do justice to the writing, but one is swept up and thrilled by Powers' sure sense of language and his skill at crafting large scenes. One also can't help but be impressed by the novel's structure, which weaves in and out of itself like a piece of music, and by the artfulness that is at work in nearly every sentence.

But for all the skill on display, one never really feels the Stroms as people whose fate one passionately cares about. One is moved by the large outlines of the story because the story of race in this country has an inherent pathos and sorrow and rage. But you don't feel those emotions coursing through the characters directly. There's no blood on the page -- and for this story there needs to be.

It's right that a novelist of Powers' gifts should tackle the archetypal American story, and readers of this novel won't come away entirely unrewarded.

But as one reads, one only wishes to feel the heart as much as the brains of this book.

Martha Southgate has been a staff writer for the New York Daily News and the magazines Premiere and Essence. Other work by her has been widely published. Her two novels are The Fall of Rome (2002) and Another Way to Dance (1996).

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