BOOK REVIEW / Not just smart but also chosen: High cotton by Darryl Pinckney, Faber pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
DARRYL PINCKNEY's wonderful novel opens with a tremulous vision of the future and ends with a wistful image of the past. 'The future was something my parents were either earning or keeping for my two sisters and me, like the token checks that came on birthdays from grandparents . . . ' Three hundred pages later he's looking in the other direction. 'The past gets longer and longer . . . It's sitting in a plastic bag by the front door, awaiting collection. The bag might even be punctured. Bits of stuff are blowing across the yard, spiralling into the lovely, reborn, neutral blossoms.'

Both passages are characteristic - in the way they hold down abstract notions by piling solid, homely objects on them; in their slight giddiness, as if the metaphors would take one turn too many and lose balance; in their faint opacity. They're also characteristic of a style that always feels entirely liberated, heady with the ability to pull awkward components together. The novel is what its creator, conspicuously educated and determinedly undemotic, would probably call a bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young man. He is an educated black, upwardly mobile before the phrase merely meant the possession of a gold credit card, one of the 'Also Chosen', weighed down with moral obligations to his race but confused by the snobberies and paradoxes he encounters. His family history is the history of educated blacks in America - from church colleges, through the civil rights movement to the black middle class. But what surprises is not any generalisation about black experience (the novel is a prolonged and often very funny questioning of such casual lumpings) but the insistent dripping of tiny, vivid humiliations: his grandfather training the family to ride hungry on the trains (once past the Mason-Dixon line, blacks wouldn't be served in the dining car); his great-grandparents' reluctance to paint their house for fear of the Klan's resentment.

These details are not set up as Stations of the Cross. One of the pleasures of the book is the absolute absence of solemnity with which such material is shuffled in with the conventional embarrassments of youth - the tedious expectations of elders, the painful acquisition of a personality you can call your own. The novel fends off rage with wry detachment, finding comedy in the changing fashions of black politics. If it sometimes feels too prepared to laugh away hurts, that is a reasonable price to pay for such a wise and unsentimental social chronicle.

Above all, though, Pinckney writes beautifully. 'Her speech began to puree,' he notes of a drunken woman. 'I wish I could say I was thinking about him . . . ,' he writes after a young man is murdered outside a Harlem bar, 'about his parents asleep, unprepared for the anniversary that had entered their lives.' High Cotton offers such uncommon pleasures on almost every page.