Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book #46 - Native Son (Richard Wright)

Holy fuck, what did I just read? I found myself saying that at several points in this book. The past two books I've read..."McTeague" and "Germinal"...have been pretty intense, but "Native Son" by far and away blows them away in the intensity department. Holy fuck!

"Native Son" was Richard Wright's first novel, published in 1940. I can see where it would have had a profound impact on American society at that time. The novel is all about race, and race relations, in late 1930s America (specifically Chicago). This was the era of Jim Crow, a generation before the civil rights era, before black troops could serve with white troops in the army, and a decade before Jackie Robinson. In short, things were bad for blacks in America at that time, and Wright wrote this book to highlight their plight.

I think the subtitle of "Native Son" should be "The World's Worst First-Day-on-the-Job Ever". The story opens, symbolically enough, with an alarm clock going off, which is followed quickly by a scene where a rat terrorizes the Thomas family in their one room tenement apartment. Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old black man, lives there with his brother and sister and their mother. Bigger is thoroughly unlikable. He's tough, he's mean, he's unfeeling, he's totally short, he's pretty much of an asshole. And it's probably not a coincidence that his name rhymes with the "N" word. After killing the rat with a frying pan, Bigger goes down to hang with his friends, with whom he is planning a robbery of a store run by a white man...something he and his thug friends have not attempted before. Now, one of the things I loved about this book is that there are several places where the plot goes off in totally unexpected directions, and this was one of them. At this point I expected the book to be about Bigger and his gang of thugs committing robberies and other crimes. But no...the heist plan falls apart when Bigger gets in a fight with one of his fellow toughs. And then the welfare office finds a job for Bigger as a chauffeur for a rich white family. Bigger reluctantly accepts the job, much to his mother's relief.

So it's Bigger's fateful first day on the job. His boss, Mr. Dalton, lives in the rich section of town. And as an irony, Mr. Dalton also happens to own the slum building in which Bigger and his family live (and for which they are charged an exorbitant rent, because the slumlords keep housing for blacks in short supply so they can jack up the price). But the pay he offers Bigger is generous, and he offers Bigger a little extra "pocket money" as well. Bigger will have his own room in the basement, and get his meals too. Mrs. Dalton, a blind woman who is always dressed in white (Wright is not subtle in his symbolism), even tells Bigger she will help him get an education if he wants. All this confuses Bigger, and makes him very uncomfortable, since he's not used to white people, especially white people being nice to him. The fact that they don't understand why this might make him uncomfortable makes him more uncomfortable...and angry.

Bigger's first job as chauffer is to drive the Dalton's daughter Mary to a class that evening. Once in the car she tells him she doesn't want to go to class, but wants to go see her boyfriend instead. So he takes her there, and they pick up her boyfriend Jan, who is a communist. Jan and Mary try to talk to Bigger, to get his story, because they are sympathetic to the plight of the Negro, and want to hear what it's like to be black. This confuses Bigger, and makes him more uncomfortable and angry. They insist on riding up in the front seat with Bigger. Jan asks Bigger to take them to an "authentic" black restaurant, and so he does. Then they insist that Bigger come in with them to eat, and share a bottle of rum. Jan tries to shake Bigger's hand. All this freaks Bigger out, and makes him very uncomfortable. Mary and Jan mean well, but they don't understand the conditioning that Bigger has been through. A handshake just ain't gonna wipe away all that shit. So now they're drunk on rum and Bigger drops Jan off at a streetcar stop and then takes Mary home. Uh oh, but now Mary is so drunk from all the rum that she can't really get out of the car and into the house and up to her bed on her own. Bigger is not sure what to do, but decides he ought to carry her inside, which he does, and then up to her bedroom, which he does. Remember, this is 1938, and a black man in a white woman's bedroom is clearly a rapist. He cannot afford to be seen there. Bigger puts Mary into bed and actually does get aroused and thinks about molesting her...but then the door to the bedroom opens and Mary's blind mother walks in. Oh shit!! The mother walks over near the bed and asks Mary if she's alright. Mary mutters incoherently. Bigger is standing there, and freaking out because he doesn't want Mary to spill the beans that he's there in the bedroom, so he covers Mary's face with a pillow. She mumbles something again, and he pushes down harder, and then she mumbles again and he pushes down harder, and...oops, she's dead. Oh, fuck. The blind mother, unaware of Bigger's presence, smells the alcohol on Mary's breath, thinks she's drunk, and walks out of the room to let her sleep it off. BIgger stands there, wondering what to do, and then decides to drag Mary's body down to the furnace, where he can burn the evidence. So he puts her in a trunk, carries her body downstairs, and shoves it in the furnace. But won't all fit, the head is sticking out and won't go in! So Bigger finds an axe, chops off her head, and throws it into the furnace. Yep, worst first day on the job EVER. And the book isn't even 1/3 over yet.

It's hard to tell how this reads as a blog, but this is all really intense in the book. And it just keeps on...the family thinks the girl has run off, and then Bigger gets the idea to fake a kidnapping so he can get some money out of all this, so he writes a ransom note, and it all just continues downhill from there. It's the kind of book that was painful to read, but I couldn't stop turning the page. At least for awhile. Bigger gets into even more trouble, becomes even more unlikable, and then he finally gets caught. And that's where the book runs into some trouble. The last third or so of the book deals with Bigger awaiting trial, and then the trial itself, and it's here that Wright gets up on a soapbox, and through the words of Bigger's lawyer, a Jewish communist named Max, makes a long speech about the injustice done towards blacks in America. Max's defense of Bigger is mainly that he couldn't help himself, given all the prejudice and hard times he grew up with. He (and Wright) argue Bigger is a product of his environment, and society had better change that environment or there will be lots more Biggers coming along. It's interesting reading, especially from a historical perspective of what it was like for blacks in America in the late 1930s, but it's not the page turning novel that the first 2/3 of the book was. In fact, it gets somewhat bombastic. On the other hand, Wright had a lot to be pissed about, so you have to give him a pass to some extent.

The very last page of the story has a subtle but meaningful (I think ) twist, where Bigger finally makes a small signal that he recognizes one of the white people as a friend (or if not a friend, at least as a fellow human). Wright makes Bigger so unsympathetic that this small, subtle hint at a change in Bigger's attitude, this small gesture of actual human feeling, becomes quite poignant.

But there's an overall question I had about this book: Is it dated? Times have changed SO much in the last 71 years since this book was written. Is this book, as good as it is, relegated to being merely a historical document, describing the terrible past of blacks in America? Sure, there is still prejudice in abundance, but so much has changed and improved since "Native Son" was published...I mean, Jesus, we have a black president now (although the calls from some that he's not American and that he's a socialist who "hates America" seem to hint at a thinly-veiled racist prejudice by not just a few). Yet all one has to do is watch a few episodes of "The Wire" to see that not everything is so different as it was 70 years ago. Many inner city blacks have as few opportunities in life as Bigger did. Things may be better overall, but the problem is not completely fixed yet. Race relations in America is a work in progress. And while it is, society can still produce Bigger Thomases, making "Native Son" still relevant 71 years later. And even if it isn't, it's still a page-turner.


Viktoria said...

It´s interesting to think about what constitutes a classic. Why do we still identify with folks like Hamlet and Elisabeth Bennet?

Italo Calvino has said that a classic is a book that never stops saying what it has to say. I would like to add that what it has to say never stops being relevant.

Do you think the story about Bigger is relevant even outside the context of American (or any brand of) racism?

Cheng Yu-tung said...

I have read this book. I think it was due to that it is always listed in American Classics. I didn't like that Bigger killed his girlfriend, I liked her, a loyal good women.

What I really wanted to say is that the book was ok. Claude Mckay's lesser know book Home To Harlem is a better book and well worth reading. While he writes about being african-american in America, work, love, friendships, education, basically real life.