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

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