BOOKS & THE CULTURE Shadowboxing Ishmael Reed Lands a Few More Punches BY MICHAEL KING THE TERRIBLE THREES By Ishmael Reed New York: Atheneum, 1989 180 pages, $16.95 WRITIN’ IS FIGHTIN’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper By Ishmael Reed New York: Atheneum, 1988 226 pages, $18.95 THE CHIPS on Ishmael Reed’s shoulders are beginning to get very heavy. He has always been a combative writer, and thus the title of his book of essays, which has almost nothing to do with the sport of fisticuffs, and everything to do with literary/cultural wars. Emblazoned with invocations from Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes \(Ali inspired the book’s title, but Reed feels a closer stylistic kinship with best introduction to Reed’s nonfiction, although his most important talent is as a novelist of brilliantly comic imagination. In the reminiscence that opens the collection, “Boxing on Paper: Thirty-Seven Years Later,” Reed addresses acutely his own representative historical predicament, as a man and a writer: A black boxer’s career is the perfect metaphor for the career of a black male. Every day is like being in the gym, sparring with impersonal opponents as one faces the rudeness and hostility that a black male must confront in the United States, where he is the object of both fear and fascination. My difficulty in communicating this point of view used to really bewilder me, but over the years I’ve learned that it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to understand someone from a background different from your own, especially when your life doesn’t really depend upon it. And so, during this period, when black males seem to be on somebody’s endangered-species list, I can understand why some readers and debating opponents might have problems appreciating where I’m coming from. Reed is not, of course, the first American author to take a liking to the boxing metaphor; though he would abjure the comparison, Hemingway and Mailer most immediately come to mind. Reed would Michael King is a Houston freelance writer. locate his own literary roots elsewhere, for example in homeboy novelist Chester Himes, who also contributes a pugilistic epigraph: “A fighter fights, and a writer writes.” Well, okay already this kind of literary posturing usually signifies at least a trace of testosterone poisoning, and Reed kids himself now and then on his own “black male paranoia.” But I remember a cartoon from a few years back on the distinction between paranoia and common sense, with a punchline that responded to the question “What if you believe people are out to get you, and they really are out to get you?” “Chances are you’re black.” That is to say, like another American original, Bugs Bunny, Reed never does battle unless he’s been messed with first and like Bugs, he generally scores a knockout: The truth is, although Reed’s essays do exhibit a real talent for polemic, the fighting posture doesn’t really fit him very well. In person a gentle bear of a man with a tendency to plumpness \(which in the past he has noted resignedly is the sign of a zest comic, with a razor’s edge of satire against vanity and corruption and hypocrisy. The man’s favorite holiday is unapologetically Christmas, and his patron saint, Black Peter, the dark bringer of gifts and harmony. So it is that in this collection of essays and occasional pieces, the most affecting one is a personal evocation of his Oakland neighborhood \(“My Oakland, There is a the various places he has lived, the difficulties of old-home ownership, the dangers of being a black man passing through white neighborhoods, the ordinary pleasures of community. Unhappily, this written last year, after his beloved neighborhood had fallen under the siege of the crack cocaine armies. It has been a devastating transformation; the two essays provide a kind of capsule memoir of too many American inner-city neighborhoods in the last decade. Unlike most such lamentations one reads, however, written by suburban commentators and reporters, Reed’s direct experience of the neighborhood and its personal history lends a real sense of the complexity and desperation of the drug war. You read about the effects of the drug operation on the psychological well-being of the children in Oakland. You really don’t have to read; your daughter and the children on the block have nightmares about it. Drug dealers show up in their poetry. The scene is spreading throughout Oakland. No matter what the people in the Junior League, the Lakeview Club, the ballet and symphony boosters may say about image, Oakland is in a state of war against drug fascists, and for the time being the drug fascists have gained the upper hand. This essay haunts much of the book, for one begins to think of it as the historical context within which Reed’s more directly literary essays take their stand. And when his novels evoke a cataclysmic atmosphere of contemporary city life, it is from the inside, and not with the prissily racial disdain of a Saul Bellow or a Tom Wolfe. THE OTHER ESSAYS weave in and out of the various controversies Reed has pursued over the years: the “multicultural” traditions of the American continent vs. the monocultural impositions of established institutions; the hypocritical racial politics of the major parties; the racial malevolence of much mainstream pop ularly vocal, and somewhat isolated, in his outrage at Stephen Spielberg’s version of Mice Walker’s The Color Purple, and what he believes are the film’s vicious slanders against black men. The controversy is recounted here \(“Stephen Spielberg Plays to distinguish Walker’s novel from what he sees as the greater sins of the film, but in fact I think the film is only too true to the novel’s simplistic, pop-feminist and dangerously sentimentalized version of black life. On this matter, Reed has pretty much remained a voice against the roaring wind, and he sees the film as representing a dangerous malevolence in the culture as a whole. Like the black bear and the North American wolf, the black male in the United States has been the subject of dangerous myths that often, as in the case of the bear and the wolf, lead people to shoot first and ask questions later. No black man, whatever his class, is exempt 16 NOVEMBER 10, 1989
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