“Native Son” was on a reading list recommended by my University English department and since I’ve read maybe 5 African American novelists in my entire life, I felt it was time to start expanding my reading base. I made the mistake of reading the introduction first instead of just jumping into the novel, which ruined the experience for me a little since it gave away most of the plot and led me to expect a very different story than the one I actually read.
I almost gave up on this book twice because of the slow pacing, but I also felt I couldn’t do it complete justice unless I’d read the whole thing.
Even so, I’m at a complete loss for how to rate this book. On one hand the plot is oversimplified, forensically implausible, even for the time period it was written in, and often takes a back seat to the almost stream-of-consciousness musings of the main character, Bigger Thomas. On the other hand, Wright has an incredible ability to distill and interpret the harsh reality of race relations in the ’40s, and then answer what to do about it in a way that’s so accessible and timeless it deserves 5 stars.
The novel is set in 1940s Chicago and centers around Bigger Thomas, a poor black boy who gets a job as a chauffeur to a rich, white family. On his first assignment, the daughter and her Communist boyfriend get drunk in the back of the car, and Bigger has to help the hammered heiress up to her bedroom.
He’s terrified that he’ll be accused of rape when the woman’s blind mother wanders into the bedroom while he’s trying to put the heiress in her bed, and in an effort to keep the heiress from making any noise, he accidentally suffocates her.
The plot spirals out of control at this point and involves Bigger stuffing the dead girl into the family furnace to get rid of the body, a private investigator who shows up and at the slightest provocation spills all the investigation’s secrets to a band of prying journalists, and Bigger later murdering his girlfriend when his attempted plot at blaming the Communists for the white woman’s death fails.
This plot deserves a 1.5 at best. The dialog constantly feels strained, things are conveniently set up or available to characters without much reason, and the pacing is incredibly slow.
But maybe this is because the plot itself is really unimportant. According to the introduction, “the sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright’s urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation.” And Wright does that. The parts of the book that are about the horrors and hopelessness of racial oppression, and Wright’s brilliant take on how to begin rectifying those issues are a poignant and needed slap-in-the-face.
I feel like I actually would have enjoyed this book more if it was a non-fiction, but at the same time, I think that the use of fictional characters in a narrative setting is what allows Wright to hit us so exceptionally hard with the truth we might otherwise gloss over, even if it is a dime-store novel plot.