|PHILLIPS (LAURENT DENIMAL)|
By Caryl Phillips
Knopf, 235 pp., $24.95
Four weeks into a recent cross-country book tour, it dawned on me. Except to point my car in the direction I wanted to go, I hadn't done a single thing for myself for a month. Everywhere I'd been, other people had grown, raised, prepared, and served my food. Other people had cleaned my motel rooms and serviced my rental car.
Without exception, my benefactors were helpful, kind, and intelligent. Collectively, they were not only keeping me going, they were keeping America going. Yet shockingly, night after night as I surfed the TV channels in my motels, I heard these same people subjected to the most vituperative attacks imaginable. Their offense? Many of them were "foreigners" who had come to this country, with the full blessing of our government and service industries, "illegally."
Why "aliens," particularly racial minorities, should be singled out for such scapegoating is the central dramatic question of Caryl Phillips's heartbreaking new book. Flawlessly blending many of the techniques of fiction and journalism, "Foreigners" chronicles the misery inflicted on three black men whose lives were destroyed by prejudice and xenophobia.
In Phillips's opening story, "Doctor Johnson's Watch," an unnamed narrator from late-18th-century London, hoping to extend his small reputation as a literary man, sets out to investigate and report on the final, impoverished years of Samuel Johnson's black servant, Francis Barber. Sixteen years after Johnson's death, the narrator travels to Lichfield, where Barber reportedly fell into poverty and died. By degrees, we learn of Barber's early years as a slave on a Jamaican plantation, his ill treatment at the hands of Johnson's blind parlor boarder, Miss Williams, and his "aberrant union" with a young white woman. Then comes a horrifying revelation in the infirmary of a Lichfield workhouse.
"Who in Lichfield," writes Phillips's narrator, "had truly tried to help the faithful friend and servant of the city's foremost son? While I was sure that Francis Barber's own failings had led him to death's door in that inhospitable infirmary, I was also convinced that others had conspired in his demise by simply standing to the side and looking on. Dr. Johnson's favourite, deprived of the protection of his master, and exposed to the hostile apathy of first London, and then Lichfield, had lost his way."
The second story of Phillips's trilogy, "Made in Wales," relates the meteoric rise to fame, and rapid disintegration, of Randolph Turpin, England's part-black middleweight boxing champion. In 1951, Turpin stunned the boxing world by pummeling his way to a 15-round victory over the reigning middleweight champion, Sugar Ray Robinson. After losing a return match, however, Turpin sank into a morass of personal, financial, and legal difficulties. In 1958, he hung up his gloves and went to work in a metal scrap yard, supplementing his meager earnings on the rigged professional wrestling circuit.
How much of Turpin's fall from a national hero to a pathetic outcast was attributable to his being of mixed race is hard to determine. Perhaps the clergyman who preached his funeral sermon put it best: "At the height of his career, Randolph was surrounded by those who regarded themselves as friends and well-wishers. But he was deserted by many as he lost his position and money. . . . The tragedy is not his failure alone, but the failure of the whole society."
The failure of a whole society in the horrible fate of David Oluwale, a Nigerian stowaway and illegal immigrant, informs Phillips's third and last story. Structurally and thematically, "Northern Lights" is the most complex narrative in "Foreigners," as well as the most timely. Told by several of Oluwale's fictionalized contemporaries, it chronicles Oluwale's ill-fated dream of a better life. An idealistic man who "wouldn't back down," he is jailed upon his arrival in England in 1949. He ends up in abject poverty, subjected to routine beatings, and periodically confined on mind-bending drugs in a snake pit of a mental institution. After his body is pulled from the River Aire, two police officers are accused in his death but are eventually convicted of only assault charges. Oluwale's history is as horrific as any I've ever read. Yet I couldn't help thinking that the same "hostile apathy" cited by Phillips's first narrator might result in such atrocities right here in these United States, or wherever people of different races come together the world over. Which, of course, is precisely Phillips's point.
Born in the West Indies and raised in England, Phillips is the author of such acclaimed books as "Dancing in the Dark" and "A Distant Shore," which won the 2003 Commonwealth Prize. "Foreigners" is written with all of his usual energy, precision, and fierce sympathy for his characters' strengths and weaknesses alike.
But does his latest book offer any hope for a species that, as often as not, "simply stands to the side and looks on" while other human beings are subjected to horrors almost beyond imagining? I think that it does. At the end of "Made in Wales," Phillips himself meets with two of Turpin's grown children. I'm not going to give away what happens, except to say that this scene is marked by the same theme of family love and understanding that has distinguished many of the greatest stories from "The Tempest" to "A River Runs Through It."
I wish every talk-show host, politician, columnist, social worker, police officer, and educator in America could read "Foreigners." For his artistic vision and moral courage, at a time when these qualities are in short supply yet matter as much as ever, we owe Caryl Phillips a deep debt of gratitude.
Howard Frank Mosher is the author of 10 books including "A Stranger in the Kingdom," a fictionalization of one of the most notorious racist incidents in New England history.