BOOK REVIEW / The search for roots among the Also Chosen: 'High Cotton: A Novel' - Darryl Pinckney: Faber, 14.99

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In these anything-goes days for the novel, the only books that can get our eyebrows going are those which brag about their status in the title. It is a distracting kind of literary bravado, awake to the absence of any clear or useful definition of what novels are. You can't help thinking of those fidgety gunslingers throwing open the saloon doors in search of someone to pick a fight with. Listen, wise guys, I'm a novel, OK? Anyone feel like arguing?

In the case of High Cotton, the pretence seems especially thin. The front cover illustrates the book's subject by sporting a photograph of the author, and the text looks remarkably like a straightforward autobiographical essay. It is elegant and interesting, but unstirred by any genuine crackle of make-believe or suspense. Incidents in the life of a young black American are not dramatised, they are just recounted; so what might be inventiveness seems like mere accuracy.

It has, to be sure, something of the shape of the classic journey-to-manhood novels of Victorian times. The boy grows up clever, leaves home, worries about things and eventually comes to some sort of an understanding of the way the world turns (away from him, for the most part). But the tone of the narrator's voice is so confident and unsurprised that you wonder why, apart from the obvious sense in which novels have a higher status than the memoirs of youngsters, we are being invited to consider it as fiction.

High Cotton begins by introducing us to the world of the 'Also Chosen', the educated black American upper-middle class, aloof from the struggle in the streets and excluded from the whites- only inside track. These people grow up looking forward to the egalitarian, high- achieving future they have been promised. 'There was nothing to be afraid of,' Pinckney writes, 'as long as we were polite and made good grades.'

The book details the formative influences. There's Aunt Clara and Uncle Castor and Nida Lee and a tough kid called Buzzy, but the dominant figure is the forbidding, high-minded Grandfather Eustace. A former preacher, educated at Brown and Harvard, he immediately reveals the book's preoccupation not so much with the usual black-and- white race issue as with the tension between different shades of black: 'His constant worry was not that he was a black man but that he was a dark black man. The condescension of high yellows hurt.' Initially, the author flees from Eustace's strict and ridiculous-seeming propriety ('I did not return his phone calls, I cashed in his train tickets, I went to the movies when he came to visit'). But by the end he will see his grandfather as a man of poignant dignity.

Pinckney - assuming that we take 'I' to be the author - drifts through a university campus, then slums it for a while in New York, taking various more or less menial jobs, one of which involves running errands for Djuna Barnes. He visits London, where he is advised to have a pint of 'bitters' - enough to make anyone go colour-blind. And he knocks around Paris with a heart-shattering woman called Bargella. Historic pieces of news - Vietnam, Watts, the Sixties - chime away in the background, reminding us that this is an archetypal life. Finally, his grandfather's death alerts him to some home truths, which he confronts movingly and with great refinement.

Pinckney is a writer of sometimes astonishing poise and grace, and his root-seeking odyssey is characterised by a rare candour. He refuses to go along with the usual noises on the theme of racial liberation; instead he makes jokes. 'Nothing about me,' Pinckney writes, 'could make whites feel bad, as if I had been inoculated against carrying terror.' As a member of the Also Chosen, he occupies the hopeful high ground, which gives him a good view of the follies inspired by zeal. On campus, too, he is modish enough to laugh at the radicals.

'The Trotskyite style had something to do with sneering. 'We are under no illusions,' the women repeated. The few men present looked as if each had one pair of shoes and trousers to his name. Though they supported the struggle against productivity deals, they seemed in an awful hurry to get to the bar downstairs during the break.'

That little snobbish touch about the men's bad clothes extends into a breezy and shrewdly maintained ennui, mostly expressed in charming epigrams. 'Boredom is not out of the question even when worlds collapse,' he confides. 'I wasn't heartless,' he admits, 'but I was the next best thing: almost heartless.' And at one point he boasts: 'The best thing about working was not showing up.'

Even at its most self-deprecating, the book is always careful to seem cool. During a brief visit to Pere Lachaise in Paris, Pinckney notices (of course) the signs pointing to Jim Morrison's grave. The emphasis on this one predictable detail suggests a lingering desire to be aligned with merely fashionable concerns.

It doesn't really matter, in the end, what High Cotton calls itself. As a novel it might seem a touch unexciting; as autobiography it is on the coy side. But the agility with which it tips over the available racial stereotypes is refreshing and impressive. And given its preoccupation with a social identity crisis, what else should it be but a hybrid?

But this blurring of the line between autobiographies and novels, which is already quite blurred enough, might easily reinforce the notion, attractive to the marketing departments of publishers, that the only people who can write interesting novels are those who lead interesting lives; or that novelists have no right to describe lives they have not lived - as if they are no more than articulate spokesmen for their backgrounds. In Pinckney's case, the fruits of self-absorption are ripe and revelatory. But if experience is given seniority over imagination, then all we can do is talk about ourselves. A dreary prospect.