Dashed dreams

Maya Jaggi on a tragedy of slavery
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The Independent Culture
Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, Picador, pounds 6.99 The Cattle Killing by John Edgar Wideman, Picador, pounds 16.99

In 1976, John Edgar Wideman's brother was convicted of murder after a botched hold-up and sentenced to life imprisonment. Brothers and Keepers, published in 1984 in the US and only now in Britain, is his moving attempt to "salvage something from the grief and waste". Though it traces his younger brother Robby's downfall, the book is the story of two African- American lives. Robby's fugitive status arrests the author's own flight. As he notes when hauled in for aiding and abetting: "No matter that I wrote books and taught creative writing at the university. I was black, Robby was my brother. Those unalterable facts would always incriminate me."

This painful "mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact" draws on Robby's musings in jail and flashbacks to the brothers' growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - the setting for much of Wideman's fiction. Yet this is more than a guided tour of the ghetto by one who straddles the tracks. Open-ended but with a honed anger, it ranks as one of the sharpest, most disquieting testaments on the state of America.

Wideman's novel The Cattle Killing is a similarly questing exploration of the black condition across continents and generations. As a plague in 18th-century Philadelphia becomes the pretext to ostracise its black citizens, an itinerant preacher rebels against a Church that confines his brethren to back pews. Segregation and torchings presage a later era, as do echoes of Martin Luther King's elusive dream.

The young preacher relays "orphan tales" from his life to a sick woman he hopes to cure. His haunting story of Kathryn, a black maid who disappears into a lake clutching the golden-haired corpse of a baby, loops into that of a blind white woman running a Negro orphanage with her husband, a philanthropist by day and rapist by night.

Another tale is of the middle-aged Liam, a slave "gifted" to the painter George Stubbs. Liam fled with a white maid to the "freedom" of the New World, where the illicit couple must pose as a widow and "her husband's trusted servant".

The linchpin is a tale of Xhosas tricked by false prophecy into killing their cattle, ushering in the settlers' reign. "The Africans are destroying themselves, doing to themselves what British guns and savagery could not accomplish." A frame story, where an author returns to his hometown ghetto, makes explicit the parallel with the hip-hop generation gunning one another down.

Though its abrupt shifts between different voices can be confusing, the novel's form allows echoes between fragmented lives. Its characters battle to keep from losing their faith, while stories are told with an urgent mission to heal and redeem. The author-persona wants "every word ... to be a warning, to be saturated with the image of a devastated landscape". In prose both poised and starkly beautiful, this novel by one of America's most audacious writers hits its mark.