Former comedian brings witty realism to L.A. novels
With the publication of Liar's Game, his fifth novel, Eric Jerome Dickey is being touted as "one of the original male voices in contemporary African-American fiction." It's a label Dickey seems inclined to ignore.
"I hate to be pigeonholed," Dickey says. Besides, he enjoys the fact that his previous novels have attracted a broad and varied audience. "I get e-mails from people all over," he says, with evident pride. "From Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, whites. Yesterday this girl e-mailed me from Germany, saying she has a hard time getting my books, but when she gets them, she really likes them. She wrote me something like six pages!"
Which is not to say that race—or culture—doesn't matter. Dickey uses a fast-paced, buoyant language that has occasionally given his copy editors conniptions. Liar's Game, for example, has a sense of humor you might associate with Chris Rock and a bluesy tone that comes directly from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, two of Dickey's favorite musicians. His characters live in Los Angeles neighborhoods and lead lives that certainly wouldn't be portrayed on Beverly Hills, 90210. Or in gangsta rap videos, for that matter.
That sometimes leads to misunderstandings. "You get a lot of non-African-American editors who don't understand the culture or the style," Dickey says reluctantly, when pressed. "I've gotten some secondary edits on things that make me think, They just don't get it. It can be language or dialogue, or someone may say, 'I don't think that character should say that because I find that offensive.' "
It's a charge that Dickey finds particularly galling, because it runs so contrary to what his readers like most in his books. "Someone e-mailed me that she would read mainstream writers who are either too politically correct or who just don't write with that edge that you get when you're being honest. Not that my stories are gritty or filthy, but they just seem more real to these readers. I'm trying to be honest and real."
Dickey is emphatic about this. He says he devotes a considerable amount of energy to knowing a lot more about his characters than appears in the pages of his novels. It takes a lot of work, he says, and sometimes it takes a certain amount of courage.
Oddly enough, Dickey has recently found that courage in the adult novels of writer Judy Blume. Drawn to her books after seeing her criticized for an "offensive" portrayal of black people, he jokes that "it just goes to show that all publicity, good or bad, is still publicity." More seriously he says, "she was writing about Jewish people living in this area who didn't want to sell their house to black people. This was set in the 1960s, and I thought it was very real. I'm originally from the South. I knew a bunch of African-American women who used to get up early in the morning, go to the other side of town, and clean up. They still do. So the book was real. But an African-American woman wrote that she was offended by this. And I thought, wow!"
Dickey says his reading of Judy Blume also helped him with a critical scene in Liar's Game. "Some of her scenes are pretty explicit," Dickey says, "and I decided that was the way I wanted to write this book. I wanted to be able to write objectively about Vince and Dana getting into a fight. It's not about me or any relationship I've been in. It's not a broad statement about relationships. It's just about where Vince and Dana are at this moment in their lives. They really love each other, but the straws of discontent on both sides of the room are just so heavy that things just snowball."
The result is a masterful scene that gets at the excruciating complexity of Vince and Dana's relationship and helps explain why Dickey is considered one of the best up-and-coming chroniclers of modern-day romance in popular fiction.
Liar's Game concerns the romantic entanglements of L.A.-born Vincent Browne and transplanted New Yorker Dana Smith. The two meet in a Los Angeles nightclub, hit it off, and seem headed for bliss. The problem is, both are hiding pasts they aren't particularly proud of. Of course, what's hidden must be revealed. Or, as Dickey says, laughing, "I never make it easy for my characters."
Told alternately from Vince's and Dana's points of view, Liar's Game avoids the usual clichs and stereotypes and manages to be both humorous and convincing. Dickey populates the novel with a vivid array of secondary characters -- Vince's friend Womack and his wife Rosa Lee; Womack's father Harmonica, who has at last achieved a sort of hard-won wisdom about relationships; Vince's ex-wife Malaika and their daughter Kwanza; Dana's friend Gerri, a divorcee who supplements her real estate income by dancing in a strip club; and Vince's neighbors Juanita and Naiomi. These strikingly drawn characters allow Dickey ample room to portray the joys and difficulties of contemporary life, particularly contemporary romance.
Dickey believes his ability to create such strong characters is an outgrowth of his passion for standup comedy and theater. "In comedy you learn to write with flow—segue, setup, and punch line—but in a way that people won't see or notice. And in theater you learn about character. A script is just words on paper. The miracle of it is that you walk into this empty thing, and you bring it to life. You've got to bring something to it, and what you bring is the understanding of the character you get from doing your homework, from understanding the little stuff like speech patterns and the way the character walks, and from understanding the big stuff—your character's motivation."
It still amazes Dickey that he has been able to translate this understanding into a successful writing career. "When I first got to Los Angeles, I was more interested in doing standup comedy and film. I never thought I'd write anything longer than a short story. I never intended to get anything published; that wasn't my objective."
He concludes, "I don't intentionally write a book with an idea of 'the moral to this story is,' because I'm more focused on letting the people in the book live. I just try to do my best. I never know if I've hit the nail on the head, if it's really worked, until I put it out there for people to read. But this is one of those books where I'd like people to walk away thinking, 'I know these people. These are my friends.' "
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.