Tuesday Books: Black novels in `noir' tradition

A LESSON BEFORE DYING BY ERNEST J GAINES, SERPENT'S TAIL, pounds 9.99 I CAN'T WAIT ON GOD BY ALBERT FRENCH, SECKER & WARBURG, pounds 9.99

HERE ARE two novels of black America, both written by men, and set half a century ago in the early post-war years. Both concern the destruction wrought on a community in the wake of a killing. Those are the similarities, but rather more interesting are the dissimilarities. These boil down, as much else does in America, to a matter of North and South.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J Gaines is a classic Southern story about a black man condemned to death for a crime of which he is innocent. It's a plot much handled by both black and white writers; in the books by white authors, the man tends to be saved at the last minute, while in those written by black ones he generally ends up dead. In this instance, the black man is a simple farm boy, Jefferson, no more than an unwitting accomplice to the senseless murder of a liquor-store clerk. No matter; the inevitable all-white jury is happy to sentence him to death.

No one is surprised; the only person who even seems to mind that much, aside from the hapless Jefferson, is his nanna, Miss Emma. She is enraged by the defence lawyer who attempts to get Jefferson off by portraying him as a simpleton with no more conscience than a hog, and is determined that her grandson should go to the chair like a man - not a hog. To this end she enlists the help of the book's narrator, a local schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins. His thankless task is to teach his charge one last lesson before dying: how to walk like a man to the electric chair.

This is a traditional novel, and its author is a veteran fictional chronicler of his native Louisiana. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey's remarkably successful book club, it has also been a surprise best-seller - proof that the public at large has never tired of the good story well told. Gaines is punctilious in his depiction of late-Forties Louisiana; his characters, while on the whole familiar, are convincing; and you would suspect the humanity of anyone who did not shed a tear as the book reaches its awful denouement.

Yet there is also a slight cosiness. The faintly pedagogical tone lends itself to politically correct truisms: black sharecroppers are noble, white sheriffs evil. It's a familiar litany, which can easily invite the smug assumption that this is simply a story about the bad old days.

But these are quibbles. This is a fine and decent book that lives in the memory for its elegance and sadness, borne along by simple refrains: Wiggins's girlfriend, Vivian, is "quality"; the one decent white character, Paul, is always referred to as "coming from good stock". It's no accident that the condemned man listens to country music in his cell. This book is like the best country songs, straight and true, unafraid of sentiment and written for the people it depicts, not simply about them.

If A Lesson Before Dying is a piece of Southern country soul, Albert French's I Can't Wait On God is undoubtedly urban blues. Once again it revolves around a murder, this time the killing of a pimp called Tommy Moses by a woman called Willet. There is little innocence here, just a teeming Pittsburgh ghetto full of music and violence.

A Lesson Before Dying has a mention of Dubliners, but this is the book that more closely resembles Joyce. With an ever-shifting focus and linguistic invention, French has created a kind of symphonic poem about the hard scrabble of life in the back alleys of a dirty Northern town.

This is a place that Southern blacks have come to in the hope of escape. Although Pittsburgh may offer escape from the plantations, it is clear that the essential conditions of their lives remain the same. So the search is always on for further means of escape.

I Can't Wait For God charts this hunt for an exit route, all compressed into five hot days and nights in the summer of 1950. Mack Jack, the jazzman, has in the past found escape in his horn, but these days discovers it in heroin's embrace. Bobby Rose, Pete Turner and the rest find their escape in Gus Goins's jook joint, dancing and gambling and watching Olinda Harris swing her hips. Jeremiah Henderson and Willet just want to keep on running, to try their luck in New York City. If killing Tommy Moses is the price they have to pay, then so be it.

In the end - for Jeremiah and Willet, as for the rest - escape is always illusory. For this is not just a black novel, but a quintessential piece of noir. In black American writing - on the male side, at least - the literary patron remains the same as in noir: Dostoyevsky.

In their very different ways, both these fine, moving novels are worthy inheritors of that tradition.

John Williams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week