In the past, John Edgar Wideman has often taken an oddly intellectual, emotionally distant approach to some of his controversial novels examining the crucial challenges confronting the African American community. That has changed in his recent work. Wideman, in his last four novels, has firmly established himself as one of the foremost voices in black literature with a naturalistic, no-frills view of urban life. This welcome trend is continued in his latest book, Two Cities.
Wideman, a former Rhodes scholar and two-time recipient of the PEN-Faulkner Award, opens his new novel with a fictional remembrance of the much maligned John Africa and the MOVE community tragedy which rocked the city of Philadelphia a few years ago. However, this is not just a tale of history, memory, reclamation and racial analysis. Two Cities, despite its deceptive wrapper of protest and politics, hides a well-conceived romantic core of a pair of reluctant lovers brought together by circumstances and a legacy of old yellowed photographs.
The complex love story of Kassima, a young widow recovering from the loss of her husband and child to street crime, and Robert Jones, an intense but gentle man, reaffirms Wideman's stellar ability to create characters who matter to the reader. Kassima is consumed by pain, grief, and a deadening sense of isolation that stifle her efforts to participate in the world around her. Robert, not swayed by her resistance, wishes to break through her defenses so she can understand that life does not cease after a harsh misfortune. His quest to win her heart gets an able assist from Mr. Mallory, Kassima's eccentric tenant, who continually wanders throughout several black communities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia taking photographs and collecting valuable memories. The old man, with his bad leg and box camera, bestows a gift of wisdom upon Kassima borne of time and experience when she sorts out his belongings after his death.
The friendship of Kassima and Mr. Mallory rates as one of Wideman's finest fictional achievements as he lets the characters tell their bitter truths in their own voices. Although the ailing elder asks the shy woman to burn his photos after his passing, she breaks that promise, choosing instead to keep them as a means of self-appraisal and renewal. Wideman's use of a folksy, plain-speaking narrative approach draws the readers deep into the soul of his characters and the book. Sometimes it feels as if they are sitting in the room with us, chatting without any reserve or pretense.
An example of what can be done with familiar yet universal themes by a writer willing to surrender to the dictate of story, drama, and candor is shown in this brief, revealing excerpt taken from the heart of the novel: You're a man. It's different for you. Love's different. A man can love. I mean some men have it in them to love. A woman just better not expect it. Better not ever take it for granted, because the ones can love come few and far between. Some men have it in them, but it's way down the bottom. Usually youall lost track of it. Or hiding it Ôcause you're scared. Usually youall don't know how to find it even when you try real hard. Till it's too late. But sometimes it's down there. More than any of his recent novels, Wideman has found a fictional balance in Two Cities that will constantly thrill and astonish his readers. Criticized for being overdependent on style and experimentation, he has returned to the basics, to the fundamentals of good writing with impressive results. This is indeed Wideman at his storytelling best. Robert Fleming is a writer in New York City.