THE STORIES OF JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN.
John Edgar Wideman.
429 pages. $25. All stories are true. That is the title from the opening group of stories in this splendid collection by John Edgar Wideman, and for those who don't know him, this collection provides a fine introduction to a writer whose fiction has earned him two PEN/Faulkner awards.
At the beginning of the collection entitled "Damballah," Mr. Wideman likens reading some stories to eavesdropping. Indeed, many of his stories give the sensation that the reader is eavesdropping, listening in on conversations, or the streaming voice of an intense inner monologue.
In the first set of stories, all of which were written especially for this volume, Mr. Wideman plays off the title: "All Stories Are True." It is a simple enough title, but one that resonates throughout the stories.
At times, it seems Mr. Wideman has reproduced his own journal entries or taken news reports from the day's headlines. These are not stories in the classic sense: Don't look here for neat beginnings, middles and ends, rising action and falling action, climaxes and denouement. These stories are more like explorations of Mr. Wideman's life and reflections on newspaper tidbits that have flashed through the collective mind. But he has captured these items, held them up, and stared at the ugliness without blinking.
"Newborn Thrown In Trash and Dies" is one such story. Told from the point of view of a baby falling 10 floors down a New York City trash bin, it is a disturbing, contemporary, urban horror. Mr. Wideman's possible hints to its source are such that you almost feel like picking up the Aug. 14, 1991, issue of the New York Times and checking to see if it really happened. It is the type of incident we often see nowadays, but shudder to examine closely, and it is tailor-made for Mr. Wideman's unflinching eye. Here are the baby's thoughts:
"I wish I could transform the ten flights of my falling into those twelve days in the Christmas song. On the first day of Christmas my true love said to me . . . angels, a partridge in a pear tree, ten maids a milking, five gold rings, two turtledoves. I wish those would be the sights greeting me instead of darkness, the icy winter heart of this August afternoon I have been pitched without a kiss through a maroon door."
Mr. Wideman writes of troubled times. His is not an America on the mend or feeling good about itself. It is a troubled, hurting world often viewed by those outside the mainstream. Sometimes, as in "What He Saw," a painful encounter between a group of journalists traveling in the South African township of Crossroads, Mr. Wideman is the writer bearing witness, bringing home the despair of that land. Another tale follows a young black woman at a predominantly white college. Reminiscent of a newspaper account about a similar woman who left college after racist comments were found on her dorm door, in her room and in her mailbox, it is another instance where the section's title echoes: All Stories Are True.
Other stories reveal some of the pain Mr. Wideman has gone through. His son and brother are imprisoned, his son for first-degree murder. "All Stories Are True" takes us to prison, a meeting between two brothers -- one free, the other an inmate. The prisoner describes an incident when a leaf blew out of the pTC prison yard. That leaf, fluttering and twisting on the breeze, becomes a beautiful metaphor.
"Before you know it you're blowing with your breath to help it over the wall and you know something inside you will be hurt if that silly leaf can't finish what it started. Whole visiting yard whooping and hollering when it finally blew over the wall.
"Denise cried. And damn. It was everything I could do to keep the tears out of my eyes. Everybody in here needed that leaf to go free."
But Mr. Wideman does not trade in happy endings. He knows that often disappointment follows joy's exhilarating rush, that sadness has the final say.
As always, Mr. Wideman's work is filled with brilliant writing and stylistic virtuosity. He is truly a writer's writer, possessed of keen vision and astounding technique. "Loon Man" is a virtual tip-of-the-hat to William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." Like that monumental work, "Loon Man" is a tale told convincingly through the mind of an idiot.
"Everybody Knew Bubba Riff" is a 10-page, multiple-point-of-view tale of Bubba's funeral, told without punctuation. The sense of immediacy puts you smack dab in the middle of all that is going on and being thought. Here, Mr. Wideman plays with one of his stronger attributes, the ability to give voice to the black ghetto. In the riff, one character says:
". . . all the brothers got a chain around they necks and a number on the chain and somebody pulling numbers daily bang bang down you go it's just a matter of time bloods be extinct you know like them endangered species . . ."
You can just see the brothers sitting around after the funeral, talking about black homicide rates, candlelight vigils and Stop The Killing rallies, how bad things are in certain quarters of America.
The collection also includes stories from Mr. Wideman's earlier efforts, "Fever" and "Damballah"; they take you from the basketball courts of the inner city to the fever-racked streets of 18th century Philadelphia. And there are tales of Homewood, the black section of Pittsburgh that Mr. Wideman has depicted so well that he has made it his own, taken it out of the atlas and put in on the literary map of places that are the touchstones of American literature.
In Mr. Wideman's words:
"Stories are letters. Letters sent to anybody or everybody. But the best kind are meant to be read by a specific somebody. When you read that kind you are eavesdropping. You know a real person somewhere will read the same words you are reading and the story is that person's business and you are a ghost listening in."