I have insisted here before that I believe there is more credibility in my reviewing books by my colleagues on The Sun than there should be if I were to assign those books to other reviewers, who you might reasonably assume would have a strong interest in pleasing the imagined powers that be of this newspaper. I have plied the news trade, God spare me, for more than 40 years now, with jobs from reporter and Washington correspondent through assistant managing editor, editorial page editor and executive editor - almost every journalistic job, it seems, save sports writer. If I felt that what I write here had to please or promote anybody or anything, I would be off instantaneously to spend my life cutting firewood and tilling my garden.
With that disclaimer, please allow me to celebrate one of the most engaging and challenging novels I have read in a long time. It's by M. Dion Thompson, a reporter for the Sun for 15 years, now on leave, a journalist for 20 years - and, yes, a friend. It is Walk Like a Natural Man (BlackWords Press, 366 pages, $24.95).
If I had found Dion's novel wanting, I would tell him so, and you would read it, here in this column. But there's no need for that; this is an immensely impressive work.
It is a coming-of-age odyssey of Skip Reynolds, an 18-going-on-19-year-old orphan from sharecropping Texas who goes to Los Angeles in 1939. It is a celebration of black consciousness in the United States as the nation inched its way out of the Great Depression, and thus universally a celebration of yearning and of indomitable - if absurd - hope, which is a beautiful thing.
Thompson persuasively weaves together his cast's fabric of common values, common hungers, common vocabularies, common senses of being outsiders in a white world. That tapestry moves, without much change, from the barely emancipated sharecropping South to the juke joints of Los Angeles's hippest slicksters.
Skip is deeply, angrily driven to get out of the world that his grandmother brought him up in. Mainly, the advice - if not the example - of those who brought him up and care for him is to stay put and accept a subservient, demeaning life.
He loves the movies. He has sent $5 - a week's cotton-picking pay - in response to an advertisement in a movie magazine for Ezekiel Washington's Colored Actors School. A response urges him to come to Los Angeles to learn to be and to become a movie actor.
This fantasy, especially in the time the tale is set, is quintessentially American - the dream of fame, fortune and the ultimate high life. But by particularizing it to blacks, Thompson carves out a powerful metaphor that plays both upon a sort of universality and upon the special circumstances of rural African Americans in the 1930s.
Setting out on freight trains, Skip insists that when he succeeds, which he does not doubt, he will not play the conventional stereotype parts that all blacks are chosen for, but rather "I'm gon' be acting like a natural colored man."
Skip reaches Los Angeles - on first blush, heavenly - with vastly less evidence of racism than at home. He gets a job dishwashing and mopping up in a barbecued ribs joint owned by a black man who had serious experience acting in movies but found it demeaning enough to drive him into scraping together his restaurant. He introduces Skip to blacks in the movie world. But there are obstacles to overcome: First, Ezekiel Washington's Colored Actors School turns out to be an abandoned storefront. But Zeke, a con man - a fixer, a shady dealer who doubles as actor's agent - takes Skip on.
Thompson's description of Los Angeles in the 1930s is convincing, well researched, colorful: "Hollywood Boulevard was crowded and alive. ... Down the boulevard four searchlights were grouped in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater. He joined an excited crowd bunched up around the theater's entrance. ... An electricity born of adoration pulsed through the crowd, gaining strength as it flowed from those at the rear to those in the front row, where it became a thing alive, transforming grown folks into wide-eyed begging children, delighted to be within arm's reach of their icons. Skip inched forward, drawn by the near desperate clamor."
Thompson handles dialect well. Voices are distinct, characteristic. He has firm confidence in stretching language. Dialect is tricky business, and more often fails than succeeds, but here it not only works but also is vital to the effects and purposes of the book. Though there are euphemisms, presented largely as spoken, the 1930s usages Thompson offers are vastly more polite - vastly less abrasive - than those in common use today.
The climax of the book is a near-riot scene that is more surreal, more full of mad symbolism than Skip's nightmare that proceeds it. Without giving away the story, it's fair to say that the confrontation of Skip's wistful, trustful dreams with the crassest realities of Hollywood - the real world? - is the heart of the book.
This could so easily be hackneyed bathos that it's a major accomplishment that Thompson handles it with dignity and persuasiveness. Ultimately, Skip emerges as something like a grown-up, if perhaps a premature one. And ultimately the human values presented by the story - despite all the largely entertaining lying, cheating and stealing - are sound and decent.
This book is not a black book, an African-American saga, though the principal characters are so. It is, rather, a book of humanity, aspiration and redemption - a literary package that demonstrates that Dion Thompson is a serious novelist of impressive accomplishment and enormous promise.