A writer’s writer, John Edgar Wideman’s work has never really made it beyond the critical consensus. An observer of such matters rooted in the socio-politics of race, crime, and poverty, Wideman’s novels and stories have been best appreciated by those who like more than just a little refinement in their literature.
Perhaps best known for his Homewood Trilogy, which includes the short-story collection Damballah (1981) and the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), the author has perfected a style that stresses a poetic internal dialogue; stream-of-consciousness thoughts that are fully brought into sensuous form by artfully rich descriptors. It has often made for compelling but difficult reading.
Wideman is a writer who structures a sentence according to emotional logic, which may explain the difficulties some may have with tapping into his work. Buried beneath the healthy amount of metaphor and diamond-wrought prose, however, are very real and natural feelings that often refer to the struggles of the African American. Wideman’s latest collection, You Made Me Love You, is a selection of his short stories from the years 1981 to 2018. The most familiar in this collection will be the stories from Damballah and, perhaps, the most exemplary of his style and skill.
Many of Wideman’s stories are based in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood, where the author lived during his childhood years. In Wideman’s stories, Homewood seems to provide more of a spiritual sense of place than it does one of concrete and definite detail. This spiritual, sometimes dreamlike, locale is specially rendered with clarity in a lesser-known work called Reuben (1987), a story of a somewhat quixotic lawyer living in a trailer and tirelessly taking on numerous clientele. It’s a compact novel of impressionable and sensorial detail that showcases the author at the peak of his powers. You get a transient sense of those powers in these 57 stories, which are really just glimpses of lives packed with as much detail that their brevity can hold.
Damballah, an abstraction of interlinked stories, sets up Homewood as the psychic tether which roots all characters to a place and time. Wideman’s immersive writing commands a setting that comes into focus through intense observation of the five senses. In “Robby”, the author likens the flesh of a watermelon to a letter from home. Relayed in such offhanded but tactually lush detail, Wideman begins Damballah with a message of communion and family that is fruited first in the soil and ends on the tongues of those who will tell their tales through these stories.
The titular story in the collection binds obliquely the traditions of bathing (here, in a river) with Greek myth to tell a story of the deeply-embedded injustices that are born of slavery and then compacted into the following generations. Other stories, like “Tommy”, are hawk-eyed examinations of the Homewood neighborhood that pulse with the rhythms of street bustle among the festering violence.
The stories from Fever (1989) are related with tones almost diaristic. “Doc’s Story” is told with a candor that is casual, though it never relinquishes the descriptive abilities that make Wideman’s narratives alluring. The burning hot concrete of the neighborhood basketball court becomes a vicarious campfire ground where stories of assorted heartaches and triumphs are exchanged.
Later, in the 29 vignettes that make up 2010’s Briefs (each story only a page, or even less), the author positions his deadpan wit front and center so that his celebrated descriptive powers are, therefore, supplanted. These stories are essentially the pure extracts of the barbed humor that feature in many of his works and, in their brevity, they manage to capture a poignancy demonstrated through some ironic twist.
“Now You See It” encapsulates, in a short paragraph, the nature of the relationship between reader and writer. In “Answering Service”, Wideman denotes the futility of leaving messages on answering machines; he draws here a disconcerting parallel to his deceased father.
All Stories Are True (1992) features the threads of faint surrealism that run through its five stories. “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies” is lambent with writing that manages to imbue the internal monologue with emotion at once restrained and gracious. Every bit as ambiguous in its intention as many of the author’s other stories, its powers to provoke and disturb hit like a sledgehammer.
You Made Me Love You is certainly a collection to give those uninitiated with Wideman’s work a sense of style and narrative. It features an array of impressive, thought-provoking stories of considerable depth. But it cannot substitute the more enveloping experience of reading his full-length novels.
He has written many and there are varying opinions of what stands as his most demonstrative work. Reuben and Wideman’s first novel, A Glance Away (1967), are ideal places to start. Challenging but always beautiful, they establish the power and influence that this collection can only suggest.