Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel about a magical underground railroad that took slaves from the South not to safety, but not to slavery either. Harlem Shuffle has no such tropes. Ray Carney is trying to get by selling furniture on 125th Street.
1959, America is on the up and up. Not that you’d know if you were a black man. He needs to walk the line of being crooked enough to be straight. Everyone is on the take from the cop on the beat to the protection racket run by hoodlums—hoodlums like Carney’s dad, who left him his old truck, with a surprise package in the spare wheel that set his world spinning. Elizabeth, his wife, is expecting his second child. And his father-in-law is on his case about getting his daughter somewhere better to live. He lives in the pretty part of black Harlem, Striver’s Row. They have their own club—like the Mason’s—in which they meet to help each other get a bigger share of the pie. They’re different kinds of crooks, because the law might not work for them, but it don’t work against them so much. Only fools pay tax. They could be almost pass as white, where the real crooks live on a pedestal. It’s disappointment that Elizabeth married Ray not only because he’s not in their class, but also because he’s blacker than they’d like. Black enough to be crooked. Cheap enough to get caught.
As his friend Pierre remarks. ‘Sneaky gets you paid around here… One thing I learned in my job is life is cheap, and when things start getting expensive it gets cheaper still’.
1961. Then there are the friends Carney keeps. He grew up with Freddie on the top bunk after his mum died and his dad dumped him at her sister’s. Freddie has got his own way of seeing things and doing things, and hard work doesn’t figure prominently. Freddie drops little things off he picked up. He’s the brother he never had and not as straight as Carney.
‘At the Maharajah they showed these juvenile-delinquent and hot rodder movies featuring angry young white kids. They didn’t make movies about their brown-skinned Harlem versions, but they existed, with their gut hatred of how things worked. If they were good people they marched and protested and tried to fix what they hated about the system. If they were bad people they went to work for people like Dixon…pushers and half-assed muscle.’
Carney tried to keep above the fray, but Freddie kept dragging him down. Freddie got a job as a getaway driver (or so he thought) for a crew that set out to rob the Hotel Theresa, the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’, where world champion boxers and prominent entertainers hung out. Freddie puts him on the sticking place when he puts his name forward as the man that can fence the goods. Now Carney is a face, one of the best known nobody, in Harlem as a cop of the take puts it.
1964, same old shit, cops shooting black kids, rioting on the streets and America bombing Vietnam. But the skyline of New York is changing. And Freddie hits up with a white college kid that likes to score dope and live the beatnik life. Whether he’s straight of gay doesn’t matter to Freddie. His family fried his brain a few times to cure him of wayward tendencies, but they came to a truce until he decides to rob them. White people with money that own half of New York is the wrong kind of heat. Freddie’s brought it down on Carey, like an act of an angry white God. Everyone wants a piece of him. The crooked or the straight life, it doesn’t really matter. He’s bought a safe ‘big enough to hold his secrets’, but the lock’s been sprung. What matters is survival.
Simone Weil: ‘The Present is something that binds us. We create the future in our imagination. Only the past is pure reality.’
Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Underground Railway, a blend of fiction and fact. The Nickel Boys doesn’t need to stray far from the truth. American law-and-order policies jails more people than every other nation combined, blacks for once have a majority. The new Jim Crow is the old Jim Crow. Whitehead, in dipping into the historical past, shows us the future in which prison labour generates private profit. The incentive isn’t for more crime but more time flips the system. Work doesn’t make you free in the land of the free. The author claims his book was inspired by the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Marianna Florida. But he acknowledges it as one among many. The school was corrupt, but so was the system that made such schools.
In acknowledgments he quotes the words of former inmate Danny Johnson:
‘The worst thing that happened to me in solitary confinement happens every day. It’s when I wake up.’
The problem Whitehead has isn’t that he hasn’t enough material, but too much. He keeps the story simple. Beginning, middle and end. The reader follows the story of Elwood Curtis. He’s the everyman that listens to the preaching of his hero Dr Martin Luther King, until he can almost recite the words verbatim. Resistance isn’t about cracking heads, but in the spirit of Gandhi moral resistance and turning the other bloodied cheek. Loving their oppressors to death.
Even in death the boys were trouble.
ACT 1: Who is Elwood? Elwood is good boy, a diligent boy who plans to go to college and make something of himself. He lives with his granny. She knows all about Dr King, but she knows the South better. She tells him to keep his head down. He gets a job with Mr Marconi, who treats him fair and treats him good, just as a white man should.
ACT 2: What is Elwood? Elwood tries to help a boy that is being beaten by bigger stronger pupils. He doesn’t understand how the Nickel School works. Fear is the lubricant that oils the chain that keeps the system running. Elwood finds out about fear. He finds out about ‘Niggers and jail’. He finds out about work. He finds he’s not the boy he thought he was or could be.
ACT 3 Who is Elwood? Elwood is everyman. His epiphany is that he has become something else, someone else that keeps his head down. He has become what Dr Martin Luther King described as an Uncle Tom figure. In hoping to graduate from the Nickel Boys’ School has sold his soul. He needs to act. He will act. But fear is contagious.
The secret graveyard lay out in the north of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated as a dairy selling milk to local customers—one of state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep.
I’m not American, nor undocumented. I’m not a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I’m a British citizen, born in Scotland who voted for independence in the recent referendum. I’d qualify for an Irish passport on my father’s side and probably my mother’s too. Neither of them was born in Ireland. A product of the great diaspora, when the population of Ireland halved from around 12 million citizens, and then almost halved again. President John F. Kennedy’s grandparents made it to the land of the free: America. He wrote a book about it, A Nation of Immigrants, which did not touch on the bootlegging, gunrunning and sharp business practices his father used to get rich. The moron’s moron, President Trump’s grandfather emigrated from Germany. His mother, I’m sad to admit, was born in the Scottish islands.
A generation ago, there was a mass shortage of housing in Britain (sound familiar?) private-let landlords had signs: No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. Scotland is a nation of dog lovers. And not many blacks lived here, and that’s not changed much. So it was a straightforward, No Irish, but that needed qualification. The Northern Irish Protestant varieties were warmly welcomed. It was the Catholic variety of Irish nationality that were called unpatriotic and a threat to the Protestant religion. Jose Antonio Vargas reiterates a maxim: We were over here because they were over there.
Terra nullius, Ireland was an empty land, apart from the indigenous tribes. Long periods of invasion across the Irish Sea, from Oliver Cromwell onwards, religious bigotry were combined with acts of genocide, the first country to feel the might of the British Empire before it had an Empire. The six counties of Brexit British Ireland are the last vestiges of colonialism in which Irish Catholics were moved from the land in much the same way they deposed American Indians and sent them to the unliveable rocky outlets. The grievances against King George III inherent in The American Declaration of Independence were much the same as those fighting for Irish independence. A country and its people should be able to define and defend its borders, but Irish insurrections were quickly put down, whereas in America, the common people won. Where people came from mattered less than the cause for which they were fighting. The Statue of Liberty enshrined this notion with the mantra: Give me your poor huddled masses. Varga notes the first documented case of a minor arriving unaccompanied was a little girl fleeing the famine, and arriving on Staten Island.
Vargas’s Dear America is a polemic written for the world’s migrant population. He tells us the statistics, 258 million in 2018 and counting. He’s one of them. Which is another way of saying he’s one of us.
He tells us on the flyleaf how this came about.
‘My name is Jose Antonio Vargas. I was born in the Philippines. When I was twelve, my mother sent me to the United States to live with her parents. While applying for a driver’s permit, I found out my papers were fake. More than two decades I am still here illegally, with no clear path to American citizenship. To some people, I am the ‘most famous illegal’ in in America. In my mind, I am only one of an estimated 11 million human beings whose uncertain fate is under threat in a country I call my home.’
In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 pilots in the 256th US Army Air Squadron, such as Captain John Yossarian fear their commanding officers are out to get them more than they fear the Germans they are ostensibly fighting. But he had to admit the devilish beauty of Catch-22. He’d be crazy to fly more bombing missions, but if you applied for an exemption not to fly that proved you weren’t crazy enough.
Jose Antonio Vargas, aged 37, who has lived in America for 25 years as an undocumented immigrant falls into the category of those illegals that should be banished for at least three years if they’ve lived in the country without proper documentation for six months. If they’ve lived successfully in America longer than six months, for a year or more, the banishment lasts ten years. Vargas needs to return to the Philippines and apply for American citizenship in ten years, which will not be granted because he’s already being living here as an illegal, which is illegal. But he notes the American government still expects undocumented workers to pay federal taxes and there’s an official form ITIN which brings in billions of dollars every year. Ranging from $2.2 million in Montana to an estimated $3.1 billion in California.
Kurt Vonnegut, Wompters, Foma and Grandfalloons touches on this generalisation overstretch which applies to poor people in general and immigrants in particular. Rich men control the master narrative of The Little More Theory of Life:
‘It goes against the American storytelling grain to have someone in a situation he can’t get out of, but I think this is very usual in life. And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture that we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is an implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved.’
Conservative Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose parents Sushi and Anjana arrived from Uganda in the 1960s, admits that under the current system they wouldn’t be allowed into Britain, which is fair enough, but illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into Britain because they haven’t went through the proper channels, but there is no other way of getting into Britain other than being, for example, a multimillionaire oligarch. The Windrush Scandal also showed the tip of the immigrant iceberg and what in America is called ‘expedited removal’. Deporting immigrants before they can come before a judge that will hear their case. Priti Patel’s attack on the judiciary has been well documented.
I was surprised that President Obama (‘Deporter in Chief’) outgunned Bush and all other American Presidents, or that Hilary Clinton—scion of children’s charities—didn’t include children of immigrants in her beneficence. She wanted to send them back so as not to create a legal precedent or, in other words, to create waves. This reminded me of the scandal sheets, both joking and serious, about Priti Patel’s apparent idea to employ wave machines to keep out immigrants like her parents. But they didn’t arrive in boats. They arrived by plane. Vargas notes that most illegal immigrants arrive in America the same way. Despite the hype and ‘build the wall’ right-wing propaganda, they continue to do so. And like him, they’re not Mexican, but Asian.
To protect us from who? asks Vargas. He exposes the hypocrisy that the most rabid and right-wing Republican states rely more on immigrants to pick their crops and take care of their children and old folk and process their food than others that require more skilled workers. At the bottom of any food chain, real or metaphorical, the immigrant can be found—as we’ve also found with our NHS, with the alleged Boris’s Brexit bonus of £350 million a week going back to pay for services was just another piece of propaganda swallowed by the tabloids and sold for mass consumption.
While at the top of the food chain, the winners, not surprisingly, are the already wealthy. The cost Vargas suggests is ‘astronomically absurd,’ and getting more so. He quotes from a 2014 article published in Politico (remember this is prior the moron’s moron, Trump)
‘the US government spends more money each year on border and immigration enforcement than the combined budget of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service and US Marshals…more than $100 billion since 9/11 going to private, for-profit companies.’
Dear America, I know you well, from films and televison. From Casey Jones to Champion the Wonder Horse. From Mork and Mindy to the Fonz, in Happy Days. From Shirley Temple to Laura Ingalls to Farah Fawcett and Charlie’s Angels the only part of you that wasn’t white was the Wonder Horse. Dear America, you won World Wars. You were the richest nation on earth, but China has galloped alongside and is overtaking you. Your reaction to Make America Great Again is an old trick from the old country. Blame the other. Blame the immigrant. Blame the poor for being poor. Jose Antonio Vargas still lives in America. He didn’t keep his head down. He called you out and got away with it—for now.
Olive Kitteridge aged 83 (or 84, I remember her telling ‘The Poet’, but memory is fallible is a theme here, so I’m in good company) is brash, outspoken, abrasive. All those adjectives we can associate with the orange-haired monster in the Whitehouse—those are more Olive’s words than mine—but Olive, a fictional creation of Elizabeth Strout is a human figure because she never stops questioning others or herself. To be human is always to be plural. To be godlike is to be humble. The beginning of humanity comes at the end of this collection of interconnected stories set in the fictional coastal town of Cosby, Maine—twelve hours from New York, in other words, Middle America, also a fictional construct—when Olive writes a note to herself that sticks in her head:
I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.
Olive was married to Henry and they had a boy Christopher and so it goes on. The story of living and dying. Henry dies. Olive was in her seventies then, estranged from her son, not keen on Christopher’s wife, Ann, who already had a kid from her previous marriage and seems to pop out her breasts to feed one grandkid after another in a way that is unsightly and unseemly. When they visit it’s not happy families. ‘Motherless Child’ is the story title. That’s all the clue you need, but had more to do with Olive’s relationship with her son. I could quote Tolstoy here about happy families being all the same and unhappy families being all different, but I won’t. I’m reminded of a put-down remark by Jack Kennison, whose story features in the opening tale, ‘Arrested’, a former lecturer at Harvard with two PHDs, he accuses Olive of being ‘a reverse snob’. He’s married to her by this time and he may have had a point.
I’m ‘a reverse snob’ too. Jack, for example, flies first class, but Olive refuses and is hunched up in a seat beside a fat man. This is America. Every second person is fat, including Jack, but he has little sympathy for her. His attitude that they’ve not got long to live and if they’ve got the money—spend it, seems more sensible. Put bluntly, I’m on Olive’s side here. I don’t like or trust rich people. Then again, I don’t know any. But reverse snobbery works in other subtle ways too.
I quite like Elizabeth Strout’s compendium of short stories. On the cover a quote for her British audience from the Sunday Times, ‘One of America’s finest writers’. Strout has won the Pulitzer Prize. One morning Olive is having breakfast at the marina. The waitress has a fat arse and Olive doesn’t like her or think she provides good service. She sees a girl Andrea sitting by herself. She goes across and introduced herself, Andrea is a poet laureate of the United States, but a ‘lonesome girl’ that she taught math and wasn’t expected to go far or do much with her life. Later, Olive discovers something about herself she doesn’t like, she wouldn’t have sat with the girl unless she knew she was famous. I wouldn’t have read this book unless others had read it and recommended it. That’s a kind of snobbism. Being part of the gang. Olive also though the poet-laureates poems were largely ‘crap’. But Andrea gets her own back by writing a poem about Olive’s life, holds a mirror up to her face and Olive realises what the poet says is essentially true.
I don’t think Elizabeth Strout’s writing is crap. But if I was as honest as Olive I do wonder why she is so admired and has won so many prizes. My guess if it was self-published, in competition with eight million authors, without all the other ballyhoo it wouldn’t do that great. But like Olive with ‘The Poet’ I might need to take a long hard look at myself. I value honesty in characters such as Olive. I admire it in real life too, but nobody’s perfect, although some writing can seem so. I wouldn’t say this is the case here. Read on.
This collection of nine short stories was winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2000. It gets my vote. Not that anyone asked me to vote, or even to read the long list or the short list. But if anybody had asked me which was the best of these short stories I would be flummoxed. I’d ask myself if they were all equally good. Janice Galloway, a writer I hold in the highest esteem, in comparison, wrote about the same number of stories in her collection of short stories and I’d have said seven were pretty rubbish, one quite good and one good. Lahari has nine exceptionally good short stories. That’s the kind of batting average that Alice Munro would be proud of.
The first story in the collection, ‘A Temporary Matter,’ takes the European reader into a different Asian culture, near the Muslim butchers, Haymarket, Calcutta, in which Shoba shops. But it is also Shoba who goes out to work as a proof-reader, the breadwinner in the family, leaving the gangly Shukaumar studying to gain academic qualifications, so he could gain tenure, or at least get a foot in the job market. They both have become ‘expert at avoiding each other’. This is classical storytelling, their arrangement is temporary, as is the notice they receive that ‘for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight pm’.
In the darkness of that hour they talk freely for the first time and tell each other stories of the things they would not dare tell in the light. They grow more intimate. When the electricity is fixed there is a pause. The future current could go backwards to the way it had been before, or forwards to a new beginning. And it does seem to be moving in the former direction, but when the denouement comes it is both unexpected and highly plausible as a volte-face typical of Munro at her best.
In ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dinner’ and ‘A Real Durwan’ the narrative follows Bangladesh refugees from the war and split from Pakistani, but on different continents. Boori Ma, ‘sweeper of the stairwell,’ is in Calcutta, Mr. Pirzada is in America studying, as Shukumar also had been. ‘Mrs. Sen’s, husband in one of other stories has an academic position, and in ‘The Third and Final Continent, the first person narrator, leaves India 1964, travels to a job in London and gets a job in the library at MIT, another kind of tenure, but what is common in many of these stories is dissociation, living in one country, but longing to be in another with the family and friends they have left behind. Assimilation is never easy and, in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’, only occurs after she is raped. There are no chocolate-book answers, but gritty and absorbing narratives that leave you wondering and wanting more.