Wesley Brown may not be the most prolific writer documenting the lives of a Black American community, but he certainly is one of the most percipient. His stories are worlds wrought tightly with the incisive observations of a man whose gaze rests upon his fictitious surroundings with a sobering poeticism.
Consider his first novel, Tragic Magic (1978), an eagle-eyed narrative of a young man released from prison after dodging the Vietnam draft. Told in glittering prose that leans musically toward the swift, loping cadences of jazz, Brown’s debut heralded a talent who clearly understood the perfect tandem that style and substance can have when both are applied judiciously. That Toni Morrison’s enthusiasm for Brown’s work was such that she wholeheartedly opted to edited his first novel is but one facet of the author’s credence in the esteemed literati where he quietly takes his place.
A writer whose acumen for a well-placed detail relays a wealth of insightful information, Brown’s work has touched upon literary mediums beyond the novel. He’s also the author a number of plays, including Life During Wartime (1992), critically lauded by the New York Times. The play was performed at the famed Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City in 1998. In 1996, he co-wrote the documentary W. E. B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices.
Brown’s second novel, 1994’s Darktown Strutters, tells the tale of a character named Jim Crow and his life in the minstrel shows; it digs deep into the history of slavery to turn up spiritual philosophies of Black artistic cultures. Always penning with a poetic hand, the author produces a bold language of swaying metaphors, which are ripe with texture and colour. The story is somber, despite the barbed ironies that puncture the fabric of the narrative, and Brown edges cautiously toward a Roman à thèse without ever indulging in pedagogic trappings. While Darktown Strutters isn’t the raw, exposed nerve-ending that is Brown’s provocative debut, it is an admirable work to expand the canons of Black American fiction.
Brown has an ability to turn out prose that is either spare and forthright or lavishly designed. Tragic Magic is possessed of a language that flows like melted silver; speeds, rhythms, and gaits are expressed in the movements of subway cars and the city streets’ anxious bustles. Brown’s prose, here, is assembled like notes on sheet music, his political assertions the staves which backdrop the story. Contrarily, a later novel, the tautly polemic Push Comes to Shove (2009), demonstrates those same talents in cold and unfussy fashion. The language is harder and less contained by the tuneful dreams of his more ornamented work.
The author’s most recent work, 2017’s Dance of the Infidels, is a collection of stories that revolve around the life of jazz music. Told in bluesy, multi-hued prose, the stories in Dance of the Infidels are at turns bruising and tender, and they shudder with the brassy surges of bebop and swing. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn, and Charlie Parker are pivotal characters that populate the narratives, and Brown never allows these figures to become caricatures or mere gimmicks.
His impeccable sense of dialogue offers his designs a cinematic reading which brings to life the fiction on the page. Stories like “Women from Mars”, about an all-female traveling jazz band who open for Holiday, are parsed with the cool, narrative inflection of a road film, full of crisp David Mamet-esque banter. Other stories key into the conversational enigmas of Brown’s work with needling curiosity; in “In the Land of Oop-Pop-a-Da”, a young girl’s love of dance and jazz music – and her taciturn attraction to two different men – are vitalized through her introduction and eventual friendships with musicians Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Brown’s strength (among many) as a writer is his ability to circumvent the readers’ expectations with turns that are steered by the wheel of psychological inducement; just when the reader thinks he’s figured out the motivations and desires of these fictional lives, the author upends the anticipations with a peculiar action. Dance of the Infidels represents the height of a writer’s compact but astonishing output and returns him to the electrifying, instinctive pulses of his debut novel.
In the years since Brown’s official inception as a writer with Tragic Magic, he has earned the plaudits of esteemed writers like James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, and Donald Barthelme. He has taught at Rutgers University and he continues to write fiction. In this interview with PopMatters, Brown discusses his oeuvre of work, his love of jazz, and the many experiences he has been afforded as a writer of these last 50 years.