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'God's Gym' is a challenging workout

God’s Gym, By John Edgar Wideman, Houghton Mifflin, 175 pp, $23

Reading ''God's Gym," John Edgar Wideman's newest book of short stories, I felt as though I were gate crashing an after-hours jam session, one in which the musicians are not playing for an audience but showing off for one another or, still later in the night, playing just for themselves. Like the best jazz improvisers, Wideman is capable of explosive solos, fiery and soaring. And as with the worst of them -- those who stray from the form of the song with no other structure in mind to replace it -- his riffs can also be tangled, tortured diversions that never find their way home.

The book begins with its most powerful story. ''Weight" is an anguished and lyrical tribute to Wideman's late mother, a woman who ''believes in a god whose goodness would not permit him to inflict more troubles than a person can handle. A god of mercy and salvation. A sweaty, bleeding god presiding over a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles." This piece does more than sketch the life and heart of this woman in bold, gorgeous strokes. It also paints in big block letters the conundrum that Wideman, the son and the writer, is trying to solve, that of ''saying aloud terrible words with no power over us as long as we don't speak them."

With the exception of ''Sharing," an odd vignette told in the strangled voice of a white suburban woman, all the stories appear to contain elements of Wideman's own story. Raised by working-class parents who were determined to provide their children with an education that would pave the path out of Homewood (one of Pittsburgh's black ghettos), Wideman moved to a more affluent, predominantly white suburb when he was 10. There he began his career as an academic and basketball star, and established his status as one of the few blacks in his school and neighborhood.

That qualifier, ''one of the few," followed him as he went to the University of Pennsylvania on an academic scholarship, to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, and into the world of academia as a writer and scholar. And the dilemma of being a black person accepted into these allegedly colorblind institutions, of being the one ''whose race disappears. Who's the one who belonged to a race in the first place," serves as one of the major themes of this collection. ''Hunters" begins with the imagined rape and murder of a young black couple, then evolves into a melancholy remembrance of a college girlfriend, one of the few black women in the same Ivy League institution, who also dreamed of transcending race.

''Who Invented the Jump Shot" starts in an academic seminar, then journeys back to 1927, when an exhibition game played by the Harlem Globetrotters in a rural Midwestern town indirectly leads to the lynching of the town's only black citizen. ''Fanon" chronicles the dissolution of a relationship between a white woman and a black man, a scholar who spends years laboring over a biography of psychiatrist, revolutionary, and ''Black Skin, White Masks" author Frantz Fanon. In ''What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence," the 57-year-old protagonist reflects on his short-lived affair with an Asian-American paralegal who is young enough to be his daughter, a woman who helps locate the imprisoned son of a recently deceased friend. All of these stories are fueled by the struggle between embracing difference -- in race, in class, in age -- and being destroyed by it. Wideman's characters demand to be seen in a way that won't also render them invisible to themselves.

Besides ''Weight," the most moving stories -- or at least those that made the effort of following Wideman through all of his digressions, his sometimes needlessly tricky navigation through time and perspectives, most worthwhile for me -- are ''The Silence of Thelonious Monk" and ''Are Dreams Faster Than the Speed of Light." The former, a rumination on silence as absence and silence as expression, contains some of the most straightforward and beautiful prose in the collection, and its evocation of the music, gait, and speech of the jazz musician is uncannily accurate.

In the latter, an unnamed man recently diagnosed with a terminal illness decides that he must kill his demented father, Edgar Wideman, before dying himself, only to find himself tenderly, frantically trying to save his father when his death seems imminent. This story encapsulates all that is both annoying and compelling in Wideman's writing. He exasperatingly insists on inserting his authorial presence, on explicitly reminding us that this is his voice he's struggling to find, his story to tell however he pleases. Beautiful, lyrical passages are almost undone by bursts of free association -- riffs on words and images that seem to serve little purpose but to show us what he can do.

But these are not limitations in Wideman's skill as a writer; he is a craftsman in complete control of his material. They are choices. John Edgar Wideman challenges readers to pay attention, to listen hard. I ranted and whined at many points in the journey, but it's one I'm glad I made.

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