In his prose as in his politics, a passion for radical expression
Tales of the Out and the Gone, By Amiri Baraka Akashic, 221 pp., paperback, $14.95
The most consistent thing about Amiri Baraka -- whose work as a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, music critic, and activist over the past half-century places him squarely in the first rank of American men of letters -- is his radical energy.
In the course of a career spanning as many political affiliations as decades ("The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader" organizes his work into "Beat," "Transitional," "Black Nationalist," and "Third World Marxist" periods, and that was published in 1991 ), Baraka's public transformations recall those of his hero, Malcolm X -- upon whose death the former LeRoi Jones cast off both that sobriquet and the Greenwich Village literary scene, in favor of Harlem's "violent and transforming" "vicious modernism," as he puts it in the poem "Return of the Native."
Baraka's repudiations of former dogmas have been vociferous, but so too are his commitments to his beliefs. Whether spearheading the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, fighting to elect Newark's first black mayor in 1970, or weathering the hail of criticism that followed a post-9/11 poem regarded by some as anti-Semitic, Baraka has changed his mind plenty, but not his passion .
A popular position is that Baraka's increasing political concerns came at the expense of his craft, but the truth is that he's penned works of stark importance in every ideological iteration. As a Beat, Baraka gave us "Blues People ," a seminal book of music criticism; his Obie-winning play "The Dutchman" came in his transitional phase. Black nationalist poems like "It's Nation Time" sear with power, and the Marxist-era piece "AM/TRAK" is the single best tribute ever written to John Coltrane, a musician who inspired thousands of them. (In second place might be the liner notes to "Live at Birdland ," also Baraka's.)
Unsurprisingly, much of the critical attention paid to Baraka over the years has focused on his politics rather than his prose. "Tales of the Out and the Gone," a new collection of short fiction penned between the mid-'70s and the present , reminds the reader what a satisfying storyteller Baraka can be when he so desires -- and how playfully and purposefully abstract he can get away with being, too. Here, sci-fi conceits mesh with anti-capitalist critiques, and stories flip from hard-nosed pseudo-journalism to parable in the blink of an eye. Or, as Greg Tate once observed of Baraka, "The subjective wars with the sociological, the political with the personal, the existentialist with the engagé."
The first half of "Tales," "War Stories," is made up of five pieces from the mid- ' 70s and early '80s. These hew closer to Baraka's lived experiences, and to convention. "Neo-American" chronicles the black, democratic mayor of a New Jersey city as he prepares for the visit of a Republican president. Through the character's internal monologue, the tensions inherent to his position grow taut: the concessions and allegiances he's had to make, the ambitious politicos with whom he's surrounded. The violence of the ending feels both shocking and inevitable, its emotional authenticity cross-stitched with metaphor. The combination is vintage Baraka.
"Mondongo," another standout, chronicles the seedy adventures of two "closeted intellectual" soldiers, one black and the other Jewish, on an Air Force base in San Juan between the Korean and Vietnam wars (Airman Baraka was himself discharged for subscribing to "subversive literature" in the form of The Partisan Review). The racial climate of the base and the city, no less than the anxieties of the young men and the twists the night takes, is drawn in vivid detail.
Even -- perhaps especially -- in the minor "Norman's Date," a story of a sexual encounter turned nightmarish , Baraka's chops are on display. The reader, just like the narrator's barroom audience, hangs on every noirish word.
The second section of "Tales" features 18 stories, the earliest from 1988 . Here, the topsoil of Baraka's mind is turned over and the dark, rich, sometimes opaque musings of a deeper brain stratum exposed. Pieces like "My Man Came By the Crib the Other Day . . ." and "Dream Comics" consist entirely of conversational riffing, quick and pointed and full of etymological dissection -- less like stories than brief scenes from some hip, dense play.
Others, like a trilogy about the inventions of a mad genius, are beholden to a giddy Sun Ra/George Clinton Afro-futurism; using "outtelligence" (as opposed to in-), the hero constructs a machine that allows one to travel to any point in time or space where a given song is playing. Others still, like "The Rejected Buppie," address issues of racial assimilation with Baraka's trademark blend of brutal absurdity and absurd brutality.
It is tempting, when discussing a writer for whom jazz is such a touchstone, to devise some musical analog. And though Baraka is most closely associated with the "fire music" of "out" players like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler , the musician most closely evoked in "Tales" may be Thelonious Monk. Not just because Baraka runs into the pianist's undead doppelganger in a cryptic vignette entitled "A Monk Story," but because Monk's compositions are grounded in the narrative formalism of bebop, and shot through with defiantly difficult but homespun ideas that seemed to shred and then rebuild the songs as one listens to them play. Baraka, like Monk, is as much shaman as composer, and what he conjures up is not for the faint of rhythm.
Adam Mansbach's novels include "Angry Black White Boy" and the forthcoming "The End of the Jews."