It’s interesting to me because no matter how incisive, and even painful, and even stark and sharp James Baldwin’s nonfiction is, nonfiction in which I find myself partly the subject as a white man in the US, I tend to find it so clear and so precise that it’s almost light to read. (Stylistically and execution, not subject and tone).
But his fiction feels almost miasmic a lot of the time and he grapples to represent the phenomenon of existence in prose. This is not a criticism — this is the essential nature of a lot of fiction — to represent consciousness. I find that, like Toni Morrison, his work is heavy and grave, full of joy, but also sadness, and you get the clear understanding on importance when you read it. It’s also pretty exhausting to do so, which is why I have very slowly made my way through his fiction, while reading and rereading a lot of his nonfiction multiple times and in large chunks. And the fact that this book is 600 pages contributes to that overwhelming.
This book starts with the death of a 39 year old gospel singer as told by his older brother. We come to understand that Arthur Montana was vibrant, tortured, loving and loved. As the novel moves on we jump back in forth in time looking at Arthur’s life, Hull (our narrator), mutual friends Julia and Jimmy, family. We deal explicitly with sexuality (Arthur is gay, and Hull also sometimes sleeps with men, but his “status” is less clear to him), masculinity, blackness, racism, sexism and misogyny, violence, incest and sexual abuse, and all the other makings of life and pain and loss and living.