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.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book #45 - Germinal (Emile Zola)

For this blog I'm reading some of the most famous books ever written, so you'd think they would all be utterly enjoyable and fabulous. If that were indeed true, then this blog would be an obsequeous brown-nose fest where I raved on and on about how the book I just read was best thing ever written since sliced bread, except for maybe the book that I read before the one I just read. I'd go on and on about how the prose incited me to rapture, much like the taste of Van Winkle's 13 year old Family Reserve Rye, which, by the way, does indeed incite me to rapture as it's the best rye whiskey on the market in my opinion, and I'm somewhat of an expert if I say so myself. But for those of you poor souls who regularly read this blog, you'll know from my reviews that while indeed I have enjoyed most of the books I've read here so far, there are very few I rave about to the extent that I say something like "Woah, this was an incredibly goddamn awesome book, and calls for another sip of that sweet, sweet Van Winkle rye". But the last two books I have read now are indeed stuplendiferously awesome, and deserve to be toasted with the finest rye on the planet. Yes, I'm talking about "McTeague", reviewed last time, and now Emile Zola's "Germinal".

Who is this Emile Zola dude? First of all, as you can see from his picture above he's ridiculously French. In fact, he's one of those great and weirdly prolific French authors of the 19th century, along with Hugo and Balzac. Zola wrote a series of twenty novels called The Rougon-Macquart cycle, of which "Germinal" is a part. These novels follow the members of a single family, and paint a picture of their lives in France under Louis Napoleon's second empire. But "Germinal" can be read as a novel unto itself, which is what I did. But having done so it makes me want to read more of this twenty novel series, because I totally was blown away by it.

"Germinal" is the story of coal miners in a small French town, and their eventual strike against the mining company. Zola is known as one of the founders of "naturalism", a school which seems like it should include Frank Norris ("McTeague") and Theodore Dreiser ("Sister Carrie"), so it's interesting that I've read all these books recently. Naturalism, according to Wikipedia, the source of all true knowledge, is "a literary movement that seeks to replicate a believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment...Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, sex, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth." Well, call me a lover of sex, disease, and filth, but this naturalism stuff rocks.

"Germinal" begins with the arrival of Etienne Lantier to the town of Montsou in the north of France. Etienne is poor and looking for work, having been tossed off his last job for assaulting a supervisor. He soon gets a job in one of the local coal mines, and the antics begin. He befriends a woman named Catherine who works down in the mines, a 15 year old whose puberty has been delayed due to the hard subterranean labor. Etienne is attracted to Catherine, but before he can do anything about it, she takes up with a belligerent asshole of a miner named Chaval. Chaval hits her and abuses her verbally, and is an all around dick-head, but Catherine doesn't seem to care, presumably because her life is bleak and she feels she has no other options. Etienne is bummed about this, and he and Chaval instantly dislike one another.

And indeed the lives of the miners are all bleak. The first third or so of the book introduces us to a number of miners and their families. They are all struggling to make enough money to feed their families, and to suffer through their very laborious and bleak existence. Oh, and they have sex. A LOT of sex. Their only amusement seems to be taking a member of the opposite sex out behind a haystack and getting it on. And sex is everywhere...there's even the owner of a local grocery store who will extend credit to families only if they let him "party" with their daughters. The subject matter of "Germinal" is reminiscent of Dickens...the lives of poor miners...but Zola is clearly not Charles Dickens. I think the Victorian Dickens would have been a little freaked out by Zola's naturalism and frankness. But to me, it makes Zola seem much more modern, and closer to the present day. There's sex everywhere and he's very frank and clear about it.

Anyway, Etienne is taken in as a boarder by Catherine's family, who always need extra money just to get by, even though their children work in the mines. And then the mining company decides to change the pay structure of the miners' wages. Instead of just getting paid for the coal they mine, they will also get paid to reinforce the mine with timber as they go along. They previously did not get paid for this, and so skimped on the work, leading to cave-ins. This might sound like a good deal at first, but the miners soon realized that it was actually a pay cut, because they would now get less money for the coal mined, and this would not be completely made up for by the money they now got for timbering. This pushes the miners over the edge. They were starving before, and this will now make it worse. Etienne, who has been talking to a Russian anarchist Souvarine who also works for the mining company, decides the workers must go on strike, and he helps lead a strike against the mining company.

This is where the story, already a good one, becomes a page turner. The miners go on strike, the company holds out, and the miners begin to starve. Things look grim. And then things start to get violent, as the miners start to go around sabotaging the mine they work for as well as other local mines, to prevent scabs from working there. In one very explicit scene, the grocer who has been extorting the miners to sleep with their daughters falls off a roof escaping the crowd, and splits his head open and dies. The women in the mob then pull down his pants, rip off his genitals, and parade around with them stuck up on a pole. Like I said, this ain't Dickens. Zola is great with these crowd scenes, and really knows how to build up the tension.

Of course, the strike eventually escalates into real bloodshed, as troops brought out by the mining company to protect the mines from more vandalism fire into an unarmed crowd of striking miners, killing some of them. Everyone is appalled, and the company decides to "settle"...they say people can come back to work and they'll then "re-evaluate" their pay structure. Which means that the miners get some cover for going back to work, which they need to do because they are starving, and the company can then eventually just sort of forget about the "re-evaluation", and continue paying their newly lower wages. Not a very happy ending to the strike.

Bu things get worse when Souvarine, appalled that the miners are all going back to work, sabotages the mine so that it will cave in, which it does when many miners are all at the bottom. This is the climax to the novel, and in the interest of not irresponsibly spewing out spoilers, I won't say exactly what happens, except that some miners survive and are trapped...including Catherine, Etienne, and Caval. Thus their love triangle can play the death! It's all very dramatic and very well done. And only one person survives.

And then, rather oddly enough, the novel ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. Zola says, as narrator, that while the miners may be working again, the deaths of their comrades has energized them, and the mining companies will eventually have to fall, or at least become more responsible employers, because next time the miners go out on strike they will be more energized and ready.

This novel is not only a page-turner and a great read, but it's also very relevant to the news in the past few weeks. The protests in Wisconsin, about trying to take away collective bargaining rights from state government workers, made my reading of "Germnal" seem very apropos. It seems like the struggle of the worker versus the owner, of the rich and powerful versus the weak and poor, has yet to be played out completely, and probably will be forever ongoing. Thus the ideas of "Germinal" will remain relevant for many years to come.