I’d never read any Baldwin before, but he kept coming up in conversations, books, and of course, movies. I took it as a sign that it was time to read some James Baldwin, and I thought I’d start with If Beale Street Could Talk, just to get to it before the movie, which looks great.
First, in case there was any doubt: Baldwin can write. The construction of the narrative, the careful plotting, the realistic dialogue, the direct but poignant tone. It was just … good. So good you kind of get lost in it, and then think, man, this is some good writing! And then get lost in it again.
This is a love story set in 1970s Harlem. Fonny and Tish are young, have been best friends since childhood, and they are in love. They have their whole lives ahead of them, young and poor and making it work in NYC. Fonny is falsely accused of rape, jailed and held before trial. Tish, meanwhile, finds out she is pregnant. Tish and her family need to now find a lawyer to defend Fonny and prepare for any eventuality.
“I guess it can’t be too often that two people can laugh and make love, too, make love because they are laughing, laugh because they’re making love. The love and the laughter come from the same place: but not many people go there.”
It’s odd because it’s so…real. I’m not sure how else to say it. I’ve never read a book where the reaction to an unplanned pregnancy is, “Well, we sure do already love that baby, here, have some brandy.” Or where the love story was the least eventful part of the love story – there is no doubt about Fonny and Tish. They have been in love, they are in love, and they will be in love. I kept waiting for the “this situation is so hard on our relationship!” part. It never came. This was refreshing. (And as I read more about Baldwin, this whole point is critical to his analysis of race in America.)
It was also heartbreaking. These two kids should just be able to be together, have their baby, and be happy. Instead, they have to fight the carceral state from a place of poverty and disempowerment. They have to make ends meet while doing basically all of the legwork to prepare for Fonny’s defense in court–defense from a laughably false accusation. It’s thoroughly discouraging that this book, written like 40 years ago, seems so modern. I kept wondering why they chose this particular book to make into a movie–I think I’ll have to read some of his others to really answer that question, but I’ll definitely be seeing the movie.
This was such a good, thoughtful, outrageous, bleak, uplifting, hopeful read. I recommend it.