Few writers today write with the empathy Diane McKinney-Whetstone shows to her characters. Granted, most of her characters tend to be ordinary working stiffs who, though flawed, are fairly easy to love. But her latest novel, Leaving Cecil Street, is a masterpiece of compassion. It portrays, among others, Joe, a former jazzman who has settled down into a pretty good marriage with Louise; their teenage daughter Shay; Alberta, a wounded religious fanatic and her naive daughter Neet; and Deucie, a madwoman in search of the daughter she had to give up as an infant.
It's 1969, and Philadelphia's Cecil Street is almost paradise. Professionals live in neat row houses, and happy children play in the street. Though folks might wear Afros and daishikis, the disturbances of hippies, the black power movement and women's lib are kept on the periphery of this oasis. But Cecil Street isn't as perfect as it appears. There's also the little room above the barbershop set aside for the assignations of married men, and the house of the woman who performs abortions, which are still illegal. It is a near-fatal abortion performed in this house that unsettles the foundation of the community.
McKinney-Whetstone understands men in a way that's rare for women writers: Joe and his male friends are as brilliantly drawn as her women are. Her themes include parental love, friendship, the rites and responsibilities of tribal life for the denizens of Cecil Street are a tribe and how people cope with devastating pain. The author also creates webs of interconnections that even her characters aren't quite aware of. In the hands of a less skillful writer, these secret ties would seem preposterous; rendered by McKinney-Whetstone they feel inevitable, like karma.
As in her other novels, McKinney-Whetstone's characters get tossed up in the air, but come back down whole, maybe not in the same places as before, maybe not without dings and chips, but whole. Arlene McKanic is a writer in Jamaica, New York.