Blues City – 3/5 Stars
Here’s what I learned from this book: Ishmael Reed really hates Jerry Brown. It’s a special kind of hatred too, one reserved by someone on the far-left for someone not left enough. That’s the secret of the Left, destroy those close to you but not close enough. I don’t think Ishmael Reed is an ideological purist by any means. His politics comes across as too messy and stitched together for that. It’s a kind of untenable utopian thinking that based not on an ideal society per se, but on an equitable one. It’s a shame then that equity is so far down the path of idealism that it feel false.
But as I said in his book about Barack Obama, he does call out hypocrisy and falsehood when he sees it. So the Jerry Brown sections of this book–for the uniformed as I was Jerry Brown in between being Governor was mayor of Oakland.–are a bit anomalous or atonal for an otherwise interesting book about Oakland, a kind of beautifully scarred step-sister of a city. It reminds me a lot of the various comedians I know who call Oakland their home, and even Michael Chabon’s flawed novel Telegraph Avenue. It’s interesting to watch someone spend a lot of time and energy learning to love a city they weren’t born into. Had this not been an audiobook, I wouldn’t have read it, but it was, it was short, and it was there and available. I think getting more of a taste of his fiction among his nonfiction was a good way to see more of Ishmael Reed the thinker and person versus the novelist, which is more upcoming.
The Last Days of Louisiana Red – 4/5 Stars
I hadn’t read this novel before, but I have read two previous Ishmael Reed novels (alongside the two other nonfiction books I also have reviewed recently). His books are something else. He writes using poetic language, conspiracy theories, oddball history, and a weighty erudition but with sparse prose.
The book I can most think of in terms of comparison is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in terms of a kind of postmodern paranoid sensibility, but in terms of the kind of almost Vaudevillian style and Black Arts consciousness I think a lot about George Schuyler’s Black No More, a kind of proto Sneetches novel from the 1930s about scientist who’s invented a process of skin whitening that erases, confuses, and upends racist practices and hierarchy in the US.
This book is about the murder of a hot sauce magnate who’s been working on a cure to heroin addiction, plaguing the Black community. It follows in the footsteps of Reed’s earlier novel Mumbo Jumbo, in sharing a major character, as well as a penchant for Egyptian history (ie in the sense that its cultural practice and influence predates the Greeks and therefore represents an African continental cultural hegemony over modern Western culture). And the novel plays heavily and borrows heavily as a rewriting of Antigone.
All of which cracks me up because a) the novel is funny, b) the novel is super weird, and c) the cover makes it look like a cookbook or a folksy memoir or another kind of Lousiana novel perhaps written by Reed’s contemporary Ernest Gaines.
It’s also an interesting pairing with Blues City because Reed’s narrator is also thinking through a nascent interest in Bay area cities not named San Francisco.