Super-Striking

Jenny Turner

  • High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney
    Faber, 295 pp, £14.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 571 16491 9

Darryl Pinckney is a black American man of about thirty-eight who lives at present in Berlin. Up until now, he has been best-known as a literary critic. Although he comes originally, I believe, from Indianapolis, you wouldn’t know it from his mini-biog on the book-jacket, which, as American ones often do, just mentions a string of prestigious-sounding scholarships and grants instead. This, however, could well be part of Pinckney’s strategy. For his book is all about the attempt of a young black man to define himself, not according to roots or background, but as an autonomous agent on the stateless terrain of the free-floating émigré intellectual.

High Cotton is Darryl Pinckney’s first novel, and it is obviously a book which has taken years and years and revision after revision. It is dense and allusive, and pretty massive in scope and ambition. Pinckney, like Harold Brodkey before him, is a contemporary writer who writes, not directly of and to the contemporary world, but with one eye cocked backwards to the golden days of the Modernist novel in English, and the other wandering forward some years hence towards the posterity which will be able to claim him, after the shapes the novel makes have had the time they need to mature, as one of the true heirs of that Modernist tradition to which he has chosen to affiliate himself.

High Cotton is structured, at first glance, as a bildungsroman. Its narrator, a fourth-generation product of the old (as opposed to the post-Civil Rights new and burgeoning) Afican-American middle class, spends his early childhood in a black neighbourhood in Indianapolis, then the rest of it in a rich white suburb. After what seems to be a year off in London, England, he goes to Columbia University in New York; after what seems to be another year off hanging out in New York and trying to get enough street-level experience together to become a writer, he gets a job with a big book publisher instead. Then he quits his job and goes to Paris, and then he comes home again. It is pretty clear that the matter of High Cotton is largely autobiographical. And it is autobiographical not just in the weak sense, of being a story which makes use of elements of the author’s life, but in the big, strong Stephen Hero sense, in which the writer is projecting an aggrandised version of his own self and attempting through it to get at society, history, identity, the spirit of the age, all the big themes of the modern novel.

Roughly speaking, there are two different sorts of story being told in High Cotton. The first deals with the narrator’s relationship to his Grandfather Eustace, son of a Baptist preacher. This man’s intellectual ambition took him to Brown University in 1917 and from there to Harvard Graduate School, before force of circumstance caused him to drop out and become a lousy businessman and controversial Congregationalist preacher. Grandfather Eustace, the narrator tells us, ‘was a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time. He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the illusion that no one else shared it.’ This fine if flawed old man is destined to receive nothing but short shrift from the narrator, his grandson. For his function in Pinckney’s book is to represent the Negro past in all its proud demandingness: in other words, everything that the narrator, being as he is a fourth-generation middle-class son growing up into the affluent Sixties, is going to rebel against.

Through the figure of Grandfather Eustace – and through the shadowy figures also of the narrator’s father, who ‘has been known to sell NAACP memberships from stall to stall in public toilets’, and of his mother, who does so much volunteer community work ‘she leaves mailing lists in the freezer’ – Pinckney seems to be trying to get to grips with the orthodoxy which expects of black artists, and of black people generally, a higher degree of commitment to ‘the community’ than it ever dares expect of anybody who is white. In particular, he is interested, through the figure of the ‘arch-darky’ grandfather, in offering a sort of critical history of the doctrine of the Talented Tenth, W.E.B. DuBois’s idea that it is the destiny and responsibility of wealthy, educated or otherwise socially privileged black people, to act as what Pinckney ironically calls ‘a beacon to the unwashed’, as enablers and role-models to other black people who are still poor. High Cotton traces the genesis of this notion from its roots in the New England Puritan doctrine of the elect through to the various networking organisations via which black professionals continue to pledge money or spare time to bring the rest of the community up to their level. And it is frequently both biting and funny about the various forms of bad faith it finds there.

Pinckney does not seem eager to expose the activities of his parents’ generation, the generation of the Civil Rights Movement, to the same sort of scrutiny. And he has nothing to say about the fact that most of the exciting African-American artists of his own generation, the Chuck Ds and the Spike Lees, all in their own way continue the socially-engaged and Afrocentric thrust that the old arch-darkies started. In an interview published in New York’s Newsday, Pinckney has been scathing about ‘blackwomanist’ heroine Alice Walker, calling her much-loved depictions of black folks discovering themselves through social engagement ‘terrible ... mindless reformulations of clichés’. Provocative of him. However, it is one thing to criticise what one sees as poor art or bad behaviour that professes itself to be inspired by a socially or politically-engaged culture, and quite another to come down like a ton of bricks on the very principle of engagement or community-mindedness. Presumably it is because Pinckney has not yet quite figured out how to negotiate this one that he skips for the time being on Civil Rights and the potentially explosive proposition of saying something that bites about the really powerful figures and issues on the African-American scene today.

For one of the problems Pinckney’s narrator has to face up to is that, no matter how scornful he may be about his relations and acquaintances with their high-falutin ideas about being Also Chosen, he himself is no sort of hero by any reckoning. All he has to offer in place of Negro Firstism is his own jejune belief in the solitary artist, the lonely black boy who emulates the dress sense of the popular white kids at his high school and rushes home to listen to Beatles records and wish he were West Indian, the better to indulge his Anglophilia. Pinckney’s narrator, in other words, is a klutz of the first order. And being a klutz, he often involves himself in situations which are very funny. One year, for example, he is the only black student at his school to turn up for classes on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. Thoroughly ashamed of this faux pas, he then decides to ‘cop an attitude’ and joins up with one of the splinter-groups from the Black Panther Party. Pinckney’s Heirs of Malcolm, unsurprisingly, are a pathetic shower; they’d have to be, otherwise they’d be unlikely to allow such a pathetic case as our narrator to do their leafleting for them – which he does for a few weeks, a white school-friend shadowing him through the ghetto in his car all the while, until both hero and sidekick get booted out of the group for ‘bourgeois thought, infantile Marxism, revolutionary decadence and flunkyism’. So off he goes to London for his holidays: a place which he already knows so well from books and movies that he can tell fellow travellers which Tube station they should be looking for. But he has a miserable time until he falls in with a bunch of public-school Trotskyists, who are willing to tolerate his klutziness because he is, after all, black.

After our narrator’s schooldays are over, around the middle of the book, what has been up until then a lapidary and hyper-sophisticated narrative starts to slip and ruck up and blur. I would guess this happens because at some point Pinckney got struck down by an attack of deadlinitis, the need to make haste, the fatigue that comes from trying to sustain high-powered material over many pages. But the great thing about writing Modernist literature, of course, is that intention doesn’t matter, and what start out as weaknesses often end up striking readers as strengths. Much of the material in the second half of High Cotton seems to have started life as shorter set-pieces, straight memoir, anecdote and even journalism. There’s a bum round Harlem, a trip to Paris, a wry Bartlebyesque story about what happens to a competent black production manager at a New York publisher when his boss promotes him in the cause of affirmative action. In all of these Pinckney’s style relaxes and opens out, and if the overall thrust to his novel unravels in the process, maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s him, not we the readers, who seem to care that Pinckney’s mind be seen to express its life and opinions in the form of a novel rather than a compendious rag-bag of this sort of writing and that.

High Cotton is not an easy book either to read or to like. Pinckney has a really peculiar prose-style which frequently seems to take what would originally have been a perfectly fresh, interesting and comprehensible image or idea and then twist and compact it slightly to make is super-striking, but also almost unreadable. For example: ‘Nothing ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather’s nostalgia, although the traditional horrors actually happened. What now seems tired was then fresh ... One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honoured guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches ...’ I had to read this second sentence several times before seeing that it was a lynch mob. This isn’t the Modernist idea of reading as a creative, interpretative act. It’s just decoding as repetitive drudgery. After reading High Cotton again, I started to get into it. It is so rich, so dense. And just because it is expressive of the worst sort of repressed-middle-class-young-man clever-clever jerkiness of rhythm and tone doesn’t mean it isn’t valid as a document, as a statement of what life looks like from the repressed-middle-class-young-man point of view.

High Cotton seems self-consciously to have been constructed in order to be indeterminate, full of concealed trap-doors and blind alleys and connecting passages. It appears to be Darryl Pinckney’s hope and his expectation that readers will spend long enough with it to be able to start picking up on the ways that discourses of race, history, identity and so on shift around and about it, collecting and clogging and dispersing and redistributing themselves over time. Brodkey apart, not many English-language novelists these days seem prepared to gamble away a speedy gratification in the hope of producing a piece of writing which may or may not become literary history. No matter how jerky Pinckney’s writing may be you can’t help but feel excited that he has had the nerve to try it.