On 'Blueschild Baby', George Cain's Searing Novel of Addiction: An Interview
George Cain's 1970 semi-autobiographical novel Blueschild Baby, recently republished by Ecco, is a difficult and unapologetic work about the life of a functioning drug addict. In this interview Imran Khan discusses Cain's work and life with his ex-wife, Jo Lynne, and son, Malik.
March 2019 (Reissue)Other
In 2010, author George Cain passed away in relative obscurity. In 1970, he was, for a brief flurry, a critic's darling, poised for literary success worthy of James Baldwin. Such was his writing that he could bring to vivid life the sights and sounds of his urban environs, employing a poetic verisimilitude that shredded much of the descriptors that had come before it.
Cain's world was, distressingly, infused with the hot rush of a heroin high, his addictions often ruling his choices in his design for living. But his erudition and sedulity (Cain was a natural student, attending colleges on scholarships) ensured that the writer kept a high head on his shoulders and a limpid gaze, which could cut through the haze of confusion that was often precipitated around him. His first and only novel, Blueschild Baby, published in 1970 to ecstatic reviews (the New York Times in particular). It's a bruising work of strained and compassionate heart.
Autobiographical in content but dreamlike, sometimes phantasmagoric, in style, Blueschild Baby moves along fluidly with an unwavering sense of temerity. The story of a young man's struggle with drug addiction, Cain's novel details the life of the like-named character George Cain ,whose living grounds (both the decaying haunts of Harlem and the middle class stasis of Teaneck, New Jersey) become the battlegrounds for personal identity. A conflicting sense of loyalty for both his fellow Black man of the streets and the affluence afforded him by his parents, who lived in a predominantly white vicinity, caused no end of torment for the young writer.
The dissociative panic that Cain articulates in his novel is drawn with lines clear and fine; his George is a walking confluence of disturbed emotions. It doesn't always make him a likable character but he is always a sympathetic one. Cain never panders to his reader with mere pathos but, instead, maintains a true sense of vulnerability – one that fails to break his character, even in the face of hopeless defeat.
Blueschild Baby begins with George, a roving reporter of sorts, surveying his purlieus. Following his release from jail, he goes to score drugs at a friend's apartment. George watches as a friend's lover nearly dies from an overdose and then moves on to similarly uncomfortable predicaments, such as being cornered by the police during an apartment raid, meeting his estranged daughter for the first time, and being refused treatment when he tries to appeal for help at the local hospital. George's day-to-day living is further compromised by his visits to his well-meaning but ignorant parole officer, a tiresome venture that tests George's patience and reveals the complicated and heartbreaking plight of the African-American in 1970s America.
First edition cover (1970)
When he meets a former lover, Nandy, his resolve in getting clean is tested with varying results. George's struggles to get clean while surreptitiously scoring drugs is an awful and repeated dance of even strides and abysmal falls. Cain offers a deeply fascinating portrait of a man who, at once, bows to and resists the pressures of his dreary surroundings, one who enjoys both the horrors and pleasures of his deadly and despairing quandary.
Stylistically, Blueschild Baby nurtures a prose of inner-city lexicons, a deeply personal vernacular shared amongst the inhabitants of Harlem, which brings an unflinching realism to the author's narrative. Cain, at times, shares a style similar to writer Henry Green in his lack of definite articles to pronounce a more naturalistic tone of those inner-city conversations. It is this expert skill of transforming the borough-speak of New York into an efficient language on the page that makes the novel an engaging study in dialogue, a valuable window into a world which few writers at the time were willing to reveal and share with the rest of the world. Pressed into this densely-wrought text of sensorial expression is the sound of jazz, an ever-pervasive noise that operates as a sort of lathe, shaping the cadences and rhythms of Cain's composition into a music of scatting words.
Slipping in and out of print since 1970, and therefore obscurity, Blueschild Baby has demonstrated a difficult and unapologetic work on the life of a functioning drug addict. A man who understood the boundaries in both his writing and his everyday life, Cain endeavored to cross them with the kind of audacity that schooled him painfully and tenderly in his craft. Inside this enigmatic and shuffling narrative, George is delivered; a stranger to himself as he is to everyone he meets, and doomed to wander the streets in a world that only mirrors, perhaps illusively, what we all believe of love and happiness. It is a world of his own creation, but no less compelling and worthy for it.
Does Cain's fictional George acquiesce to these illusory images of misery and hope, or does he resist the temptation to submit to the spinning machine of a weary and believing world? The novel's dénouement seems to suggest the latter, albeit in a manner that reveals a wiser, more percipient George who has finally mastered the challenge of holding demons captive, the very ones that held him in their grip for much of his story. The real-life Cain never won his battle against those demons, as he was driven again and again to addiction, which saw him to the end of his life at 66 years of age.
Blueschild Baby remains the author's sole and enduring offer of an at turns sad, defiant and hopeful life. As with a life's work that has forever encased its author's soul, the novel bristles intensely with an energy that is almost palpable. You touch the page and something or someone comes alive: a conversation penned in ink suddenly resounds from the next room, the delineation of a lonely young man, stumbling home in a halfway-to-heaven high, becomes more real to you than anything you could ever know.
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The following is an interview with author Jo Lynne Pool, George Cain's ex-wife, who lived with him during her years in New York.
Jo Lynne Pool and George Cain. (Photo © courtesy of Jo Lynne Pool and Malik.)
What are your memories of meeting George for the very first time?
Jo Lynne Pool: When I was 17 and just graduated high school in Texarkana, Texas, I wanted to go to the biggest city I could find. Among my scholarship offers was one from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which I accepted and enrolled in Fashion Design and Graphic Arts. Toward the end of sophomore year, a really nice Puerto Rican guy in my painting class decided I would be perfect for his best friend and arranged a meeting for us.
This was 1968 and the hippie movement was in full swing, and we art students were definitely influenced by it. We didn't do conventional stuff like going on double-dates. Instead, Rashid asked to give my address to his friend, George, so he could come over. I was living in a brownstone off campus with several girlfriends and was willing to at least meet his friend who he'd informed me was recently out of jail, and about to become a published author with a contract with McGraw Hill.
That Saturday in late Spring, I watched at the front window waiting to catch sight of this new guy, and I spied a tall, thin fellow with a goatee, a kufi on his head and an armful of binders coming down the street. But I wasn't certain this was the guy, because for some reason he was carrying books…maybe this wasn't him.
I was delighted when he came up the stoop and rang the doorbell. We sat talking for hours about his writing and his book and his experiences…He found me to be a good listener and I was smitten. He was handsome, tall, funny and very interesting. I was a naïve small-town virgin who had no clue that the glassy look in his green eyes, or the way he fell asleep briefly (nodded off) in the middle of our conversations indicated a drug habit.
He visited me almost every day after that, and pretty soon I was pregnant. We married in February 1969 on the last day before the marriage license expired, and our daughter was born in July.
(Photo © courtesy of Jo Lynne Pool and Malik.)
I'd like to know more about George's interest in writing. Do you know what kinds of literary influences he had? Did he ever talk to you about his passion for writing?
JLP: All the time… He was greatly interested in the "Beat" generation writers, and was especially influenced by Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road. The travels and travails it depicted were inspiration for his own travels to see more of the world outside of NYC, his birthplace. It led him on the bus trip through Texas to his eventual arrival in Mexico and also to his first experience in jail, which I believe was for marijuana possession.
He also loved the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and the writings of Hemingway. These influences led him to believe that struggles and angst were key ingredients in becoming a real writer.
Another major influence on George was Richard Wright's Native Son. He identified with the tribulations and oppressions of the protagonist even though his own upbringing was in relative affluence. He believed that his family's comfortable lifestyle was a hindrance to his writing, and he had to overcome its complacency to perfect his art as a writer. Also, he admired all of James Baldwin's works.
George carried his writing notes with him everywhere he went. Did he ever show you his notes, the things he was writing - either what would eventually become Blueschild Baby or other writings he was working on?
JLP: Yes, the three big binders of longhand scrawls were ever-present, and were with him the first time we met. He never let me see them, but he would read some of the book to me on occasion. When he introduced the character of Nandy, he read portions of that narrative to me for my opinion. She was a composite of me and other women he knew, and he wanted my perspective. The novel was his obsession and was the only writing he was working on.
How did George feel about his newfound success as a novelist?
JLP: He took to it very well. McGraw Hill actively promoted the book, arranged radio and TV interviews, and held a book signing party at the beautiful NYC brownstone of a big TV producer, "Ben" somebody. That was the party where we met James Baldwin, an intense little man who seemed to be fascinated with George. He even invited himself to come out to our apartment in Park Slope for some "real" Southern fried chicken. I graciously told him I'd be happy to make dinner for him, then went into a huge panic because just because I was a black woman from the South, he assumed I could fry chicken, something I had never done. I ransacked recipe books the next day and held my breath for his phone call, but to my great relief, he never came.
During the book tour, George was treated like a celebrity. We took the children, our daughter and baby son, to stay with my parents in Texas during that time, and I tagged along with him. We were Sunni Muslims by then, and I wore a head scarf and stayed quietly in the background.
I believe he was viewed as an intriguing oddity, a highly intelligent, articulate black man who had "overcome the streets" to become a writer. He was raised in the projects in Hell's Kitchen where he and Rashid had become close friends. But as his father's career moved up, so did their affluence; he attended McBurney prep school, was a friend of the painter Virginia Admiral and occasionally babysat her son, Robert DeNiro. Her loft in SoHo was the first place he took me after we became serious…I think he wanted her opinion of me.
After the book tour, he was asked to be writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in Iowa City for a summer semester, where he was lauded by the professors and students while he fiended for drugs and tried to figure out how to get some. The college provided a small residence, literally with cornfields in the back yard, and he was very uncomfortable being out in the country and away from The City. The wine and reefer parties out there weren't doing the job for him. Instead he was spending all the money flying to NYC every weekend to score.
One day I realized he was gone again but not to New York. He'd just disappeared with no word, but the closest big town was Des Moines, so that had to be where he went. I took a taxi to the Greyhound station, went to Des Moines and asked a cab driver there to take me to the local crack house and wait for me. He drove straight there, and I went through the rooms, checking the junkies until I found him propped up on a mattress on the floor in the back of the house with a little scrawny junkie woman curled up on his chest. He was too lethargically high to be surprised. He removed her head, waking her up, introduced her to me as "Bug" and said "This is my wife. I guess I've got to go now." And so we did.
Just part of life with George. I always told him I had been bored to death in Texarkana, but I'd never had a dull moment with him…intriguing, inspiring, crazy, maddening, hair-raising, but never boring! It just occurred to me that I could write a book about him, like his editor Joyce Johnson (Pinchbeck), did about her years with Jack Kerouac!
(Photo © courtesy of Jo Lynne Pool and Malik.)
There was a planned sequel for Blueschild Baby that never came to fruition. Did George ever share with you his ideas on the sequel - its narrative or structure, etc.?
JLP: He was struggling with writing the sequel that had already been presold to McGraw Hill, but I have no idea what it was about. His drug use had escalated, and he was doing very little work on the book. So, his editor, Joyce, arranged for a sabbatical for him at McDowell, an upstate writer's colony to get him clean and give him a chance to overcome "writer's block". But that time away from the streets was a real challenge for him. It didn't take and the anticipated novel never materialized.
Reading the book, I noticed many references to jazz music. It seems to be the protagonist's preferred music. Did George have a particular record or album that he liked and listened to a lot?
JLP: His favorite musicians were John Coltrane, in particular his album Kulu Se Mama, and anything by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Jazz was the background music to his life.
Staten Island Community College hired George as a lecturer. Do you know anything of his time spent as a lecturer at the college?
JLP: No, I don't. As a functioning addict, he managed to get up and get out there every day and was apparently good at it. I believe he was a born teacher. However, the coed who called the house to talk to his "sister" and cry about him getting her pregnant was the reason I started making plans to leave. I dealt with his drug addiction, but cheating was intolerable.
What did you learn of George's later life, following the book? His struggles with substance abuse are well documented, but did he ever try to return to writing?
JLP: I don't know if he wrote anything later on. I left with our two kids in 1978, moving to Washington, DC for a job. He knew where we were, but his drug usage was a major obstacle to reuniting. In 1982, I moved back to Texas and got saved in church that year, and in 1985 I wanted to file for divorce and move on with my life. But I felt a conviction to first try to reconcile with him and wrote him a letter.
After six months he responded and booked a flight to Houston to see us. I dragged him to church that weekend and he got saved, and I nursed him through withdrawal for two days before putting him back on the plane. I told him to contact a friend of ours who had become a Pentecostal pastor in the Bronx, and he did touch base with him briefly, telling him he'd gotten saved.
I never saw George again, and the only other communication we had was when my now rebellious teenagers wanted to go to NYC to live with their father. That lasted a week before they were ready to come home, unable to deal with his long absences (probably scoring drugs), and with his basement rooms in Harlem that had a walkway of boards laid across sewage.
I was mildly upset that he'd let our son get his ear pierced but that was the only damage done. The kids touched base with him occasionally over the years, but I did not.
I know that at some point he renewed his connection with the stripper and the daughter she bore him before he and I married, because they were photographed together when he was on his sickbed.
(Photo © courtesy of Jo Lynne Pool and Malik.)
During his troubled years when he returned to his addiction and stopped publishing, he seemed to move back and forth between Brooklyn and Harlem. Do you know much about his time spent during his non-publishing years, how he had managed to keep himself in house and home?
JLP: I'm not sure he ever "returned to his addiction" because he never really left it. Aside from the period when he was enrolled in a methadone program, he was on heroin since before I met him in 1968 at least until I left ten years later. I don't believe the "cleaning up" we engaged in after he got saved lasted more than a week or two after his return to NYC.
When I wrote the letter that led to his visit to Houston, I sent it to our old Park Slope address and really expected that he'd moved away by then and would never receive it. But he was still there in 1985, eight years later. He only communicated with the kids, and then only when they'd left messages for him with their grandparents. I do know he continued to teach, but I'm not sure where.
You are a writer. [Most recently, Your Good Man from God: How to Know and Keep Him!] Did any of your children inherit a passion for writing as well?
JLP: Our son, Malik, has the writing bug, and produced a fantasy novel for teenagers that has not yet been published. He also won a writing award. Our daughter, Nataya, became an attorney who distanced herself from George after she asked for law school money and he accused her of becoming a "sellout".
Blueschild Baby is considered a rediscovered classic. What do you think this novel might say to readers who are reading it for the first time today?
JLP: I have not read Blueschild Baby since it was first published. It was fascinating but brutal reading to me then, and my opinion hasn't changed. I was not a drug addict but lived it every day…the struggles of loving a genius druggie writer were all too real, and I failed to appreciate the descriptions in the book because they were often painful realities in our lives. George's mother cried when she first read it because of the profanity and the depiction of their family.
George and I did a major book tour in 1971, arranged by McGraw-Hill, and I was amazed at the interest the book held for people. I was also fascinated over the years to learn of its reissue by Ecco Press in the 1980s and its being a college study text, and by the recent interest shown by Leslie Jamison in reissuing the book once again. I should probably reread it.
I do believe that the latest generation of readers may find an earlier echo of the struggles they may be encountering now. Learning that they're not alone could help support them in overcoming their own addictions as George gives voice to their realities. Addiction is addiction, and its trials and tribulations may be unique in the particulars but are universal in their overall detrimental impact on people's lives. If his writing helps them cope, or lets them know that they can be overcomers, then there was good to be had in the writing, and George would be very pleased.
Jo Lynne Pool and George Cain. (Photo © courtesy of Jo Lynne Pool and Malik.)
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George's son, Malik, offers his personal accounts of his father.
Could you share some of your memories of your father?
Malik: Growing up, I remember very little about my father. What I do remember are usually event-related snippets and have more to do with his friendships and family. For instance, I remember my father would have these get-togethers with his friends at our house or have his brothers over. They would close the door to the den, but we kids would lurk around. After these get-togethers, you would always find such interesting things like roach clips or bullets.
He was very gregarious and fun-loving. I don't remember being disciplined by my father except for once when I got lost in Prospect Park. My other clear memory of him is him crashing into a trash truck, either taking us to or picking us up from school.
Did your father ever discuss with you the craft of writing or instill in you an interest for literature and writing?
M: Not at an early age. Yet I always had a keen interest in reading. My sister was more of a writer during her early years and I picked it up later in life. However, when we reconnected when I was older, I remember his apartment being filled with books. There were books being used as the legs for his coffee table, and cinder block bookshelves lining the walls filled with books. In my memory, I also have a sense of his apartment as having a hoarderish lean to it, with the piles of books everywhere.
I remember them as grand literature for smarter people, which held little interest for me. In addition to the books, there was one section that contained volumes of the black and white composition books which I always thought of as cow-binders. He had stacks of them resting on top of each other. He said that they were his writings. He never offered to share them and I never asked.
What are your thoughts on Blueschild Baby?
M: It has been awhile since I attempted to read Blueschild Baby, but I tried to numerous times when I was probably too young. I recall getting lost in the prose. For me, I had to concentrate to make sense of the words. They sometimes seemed to be jumbled thoughts that were spilling from his mind that he desperately needed to get out. I sometimes wonder how much of the novel he wrote high.
I haven't even read enough to get the complete picture of the novel. My recollection of it ends with the scene of the white dude, raping his girlfriend back to life.
Have you been to the areas George grew up in as a child? Do the areas where your father lived (Harlem/New Jersey) hold any resonance for you?
M: I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the place holds a special memory for me. It was a neighborhood with mostly black neighbors who were friendly towards each other. We used to spend a great deal of time in the neighbor's pool.
I had the opportunity to visit him in Harlem as a teenager and, walking anywhere with him, it was easy to feel at home. Back then, Harlem wasn't what it is now and my father was able to stroll the streets with an easy confidence. It didn't matter if it was black Harlem or Spanish Harlem, people knew his name and would shout out "Cain" as we walked by. He rarely stopped as he was often on a mission.
I never realized what his mission was until I got older. I do remember him taking me into the lobby of a typical Harlem apartment near his place at 145th and Amsterdam, the kind that you pass through a long corridor, usually next to a storefront. In this case, the corridor was pitch black as if someone had removed the lights. In the gloom, way in the back, a thin man with dreadlocks stood with a machete, near him sat a coconut and I'd always assumed the machete was for the coconut.
My father had me wait with the man while he went up a flight of stairs. I don't remember any sense of fear and he returned a short time later and we left the gloom and went on our way. This was a standard walkabout with my father. Pool halls, bars, or strange apartments, you never knew where the destination might turn out to be. He never told me what we were doing in those places and I never asked.