With World War II raging, a young Malcolm X comes of age in Harlem

Review Novel

March 12, 2006|By ART WINSLOW | ART WINSLOW,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Strivers Row

Kevin Baker

HarperCollins / 550 pages / $26

"I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men," Malcolm X declared in a speech two months before he was assassinated in February 1965, "but I don't believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn't want brotherhood with me."

It was a more evenhanded sentiment than many he had been known to express, but then Malcolm X's political path had changed markedly in the last year of his life: He had broken with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and made a religious pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca.

The shift in Malcolm's political views - for years he had stumped for Elijah Muhammad - lies outside the time frame of Kevin Baker's new novel, Strivers Row, set in Harlem during World War II. And yet it is an unseen engine of the book as well, for we know what happened in his life, and the reconciliation of radical political thought with the idea of brotherhood figures centrally to Baker, who has made Malcolm Little, the young man who was to become Malcolm X, a central character of his novel.

Malcolm's opposite number, the novel's second major character, is a preacher named Jonah Dove, who suffers his own personal and political qualms, torn between helping his race and abandoning it. In comic fashion, Jonah and Malcolm run into each other repeatedly, each convinced the other is following him. It's hard not to see them as opposing foils as Strivers Row proceeds: the middle-class success, pondering his abstractions and meditating on social conscience and consequence, and the out-of-poverty street hustler less concerned with morals than with day-to-day survival.

Varied strains of black political thought course through Strivers Row, which takes its name from the 19th-century brownstone neighborhood of 138th and 139th streets occupied by the black cultural elite. Jonah lives in one of the brownstones, while Malcolm occupies a number of more marginal apartments and rooming places, smoking joints and popping pills, moving frequently at times to avoid various pursuers, including the pimp and the numbers boss for whom he sporadically works.

Half of Strivers Row is an account of Malcolm X's early life, many of the events, characters and even dialogue imported from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with only a slight tweak. Read the two together and you'll see the consonance, with Baker generally faithful to the original in a historical sense while also distilling out some of Malcolm's political pungency. That slight denaturing by Baker - it's his character before he went to prison and emerged as Malcolm X, after all - has its parallel in the Jonah Dove character, a light-skinned black who more than once determines to pass himself off as white.

Malcolm is a striver in his own way, of course, and more than once has a vision of Elijah Muhammad, dreamlike experiences - perhaps drug- or exhaustion-induced - that Baker uses to integrate a brief account of Nation of Islam beliefs and history into his story line. His overall attempt is to capture the cultural and political context of the times, including pockets of black apathy or even antipathy toward the war, which rages in the background while military and city police scour Harlem for wayward soldiers and troublemakers.

Art Winslow wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.

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