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on November 3, 2012
John Edgar Wideman's "Two Cities: A Love Story" (1998) tells a story of three African American lonely people and of city streets that is spoiled by polemic and anger. A Professor at Brown University, Wideman is the author of over 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He has received many honors, including a MacArthur genius grant. "Two Cities" is the first work of Wideman's that I have read.
The book is set largely in the African American communities of two cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. One of the three major characters of the story, an elderly self-educated man, Mr Mallory, bridges the two cities and sets on the the themes on the novel through his study of the dictionary. Early in the book, he finds the work "zugenruhe" on the final page of his dictionary. The word means migration, and there is much of it in Mallory's life.
The book is short but difficult. It unfolds slowly and through indirection. The novel does not move by straightforward narrative. Instead the scenes, times, and speakers shift constantly. Most of the book is recounted as internal monologues in the words of the three protagonists. The book has a shimmering, shifting, and musical feel of jazz and blues riffs.
Besides Mallory, the two major characters in the novel are Robert Jones, 50, and Kassima, 35, recently widowed. Jones is a taciturn, reserved individual. He speaks of his early family life and of spending his youth raised by women, but only late in the novel does he state that he has been divorced and heartbroken. Jones says: "I lost a woman I loved and it didn't happen just yesterday and it still hurts very much. But I never met anybody who's grown and hasn't lost someone. Sometimes I believe it's what grown meansm Means you been hurt bad at least once. So I'm plenty grown. A grownup man. Dues-paying grown. Is that enough about me."
Kassima has lost her two sons to gang warfare and her husband has died in prison within the space of ten months. One evening, she goes out to the local bar, Edgar's, meets Jones, and the two begin an on-again, off-again relationship. Kassima lives in rowhouse in a Pittsburgh neighborhood called Cassina. Jones grew up in the neighborhood years earlier, and he may have lived in the same house.
Mallory boards with Kassima and generally stays to himself. When the relationship between Kassima and Jones appears to come to a standstill, Mallory and Kassima begin to talk and the old man opens up about himself. Mallory had left his family many years earlier and served in WW II in Italy. He works hard at photography and sends lengthy letters to a surrealist sculpture and artist, Alberto Giacommetti (1901 -1966) whose work he admires. Mallory spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia where he befriended another historical character, John Africa. Africa (1931 -- 1985) was the founder of a Philadelphia black liberation group, MOVE, and he died when the Philadelphia police raided and attacked MOVE's headquarters and home.
The style of the book captures the rhythm of inner city music and the surrealism of Giacommetti. The novel includes many references to characters ranging from Greek mythology to the Bible, to Romaine Bearden, Theolonius Monk, and Bessie Smith to Emmitt Till. The story wanders among the three major characters, with Mallory's photographs and journeys in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Italy gradually coming to the forefront.
There is a great deal in the book about Move and John Africa. They are sympathetically and rather uncritically described. The prominence of gang warfare in the inner cities and the frightful toll it takes also is a strong theme of the book.
There is much to like about this book in its description of the protagonists, Kassima and Jones more than Mallory, and their fortitude. They show a determination to live and to move ahead in the face of obstacles. There is also a great deal in the book about forgiveness, giving others the "benefit of the doubt" and not bearing grudges.
Unfortunately, portions of this novel move slowly and become unduly muddled. More importantly, the book works away from its stated character as a "love story" and a depiction of place. It becomes a sharp, vitriolic social criticism of the "power structure" which allegedly keeps the novel's characters and individuals such as John Africa down. There is little in the book, in its scenes or character development, that supports the increaslingly strident ideology. The characters' understanding of themselves and of each other works at cross-purposes to the criticism, probably deliberately but still ineffectively so. Although the book begins with a good deal of flair and promise, the social polemic the work assumes left me highly disappointed in the end.