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The Street: A Novel Paperback – March 15, 1998
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"Overflows with the classic pity and terror of good imaginative writing." The New York Times
"A powerful, uncompromising work of social criticism. To this day, few works of fiction have so clearly illuminated the devastating impact of racial injustice." -- Coretta Scott King
"A classic of American realism . . . The Street rushes toward its fatalistic climax like a train toward a washed-out bridge." Newsday
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The "environment" figures nearly as a separate character in this novel. The "Street"--that, is the squalor of a block in Harlem--reflects, limits, and defines everyone who lives there. The newcomer to the neighborhood is Lutie, a mother struggling to raise her young son, Bub; she left her husband who, unable to find work because of his race, took up with another woman while Lutie worked as a maid in the suburbs. Lutie's new neighbors include Mrs. Hedges, who runs a brothel; Jones, the building super who pretty much loses his mind lusting after the new tenant; and Min, his current live-in girlfriend. Each is of a type: Lutie is idealistically principled, Bub is perilously naive, Mrs. Hedges is jadedly street-smart, Jones is menacingly vulgar, Min is irrationally jealous. Yet these characters transcend their types through their interactions with the surroundings: both by their ongoing struggles to make something of the little available to them and by the improbability that they ever might get ahead.
Through the wonder of Petry's prose, it is the Street (116th Street during wartime, to be precise) that commands our attention; it seems to have its own personality; it does things to people. Lutie thinks to herself, "you're afraid that this street will keep [Bub] from finishing high school; that it may do worse than that and get him into some kind of trouble that will land him in reform school because you can't be home to look out for him because you have to work." Later she wonders, "What would the street do to her?" And this Street seems unique and alive: When Mrs. Hedges "referred to it as 'the street,' her lips seemed to linger over the words as though her mind paused at the sound to write capital letters and then enclosed the words in quotation marks--thus setting it off and separating it from any other street in the city, giving it an identity, unmistakable and apart." The Street becomes a neo-gothic monstrosity; only someone like Mrs. Hedges, who has surrendered to its lack of charms, can possibly survive its lethal influences.
Petry's prose somehow manages to be simultaneously unadorned and poetic; that is, she tells her story in a straightforward manner yet each sentence is as evocative as it is sparse. And her characters are wholly believable and her plotting is relentless (the pacing of her novel belies its 450-page length). Yes, this novel is "depressing" but, above all, it is real.