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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, August 23rd, 2001


 

Don't the Moon Look Lonesome

by

A review by Dale Peck

I.
Sometimes a bad novel is a gift. This is particularly evident when that novel is written by a writer as ambitious as Stanley Crouch. Here is a book with much to say about three of our culture's most important social and literary themes - race, art, and love; and, when one has sifted through the bombast and the clumsiness to the truisms that lurk at the heart of this big book like minnows in a deep and muddy river, one does see what is wrong with American society in general and with American literature in particular. For lack of a better term, I will call it the problem of false pretenses. If only chronology were irrelevant to judgment, and the novel were its subject rather than the words: then Lo's Diary would be just as good as Lolita, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome would be as important as Invisible Man.

Not since Donna Tartt's "Il miglior fabbro" to Gary Fisketjohn has a novel started with such a shoulder-rubbing dedication: "For Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow, mentors all." The Secret History had at least the distinction of being a well-written thriller; but Don't the Moon Look Lonesome is neither well-written nor thrilling. In fact, the novel is essentially plotless, being concerned with issues rather than stories, the primary issue being the thesis that we are all different yet all the same, so get over it already.

Crouch's subjects are African- and occasionally other Americans; music, mainly jazz, but music in Crouch's world seems representative of the ideal state of art; and interracial heterosexuality, specifically the black-man-on-top-of-white-woman variety, oh my. The white woman, an aspiring jazz singer named Carla, is the protagonist of the novel, but it is more useful to think of her as the moon of the novel's title, the lone spot of white in a vast field of blackness. For Carla is less an aspiring anything than a figure resembling Norman Mailer's white Negro of a few decades ago. She doesn't just sing black, she also dates black, befriends black, cooks black, and, best of all, looks black - at least, as far as her boyfriend is concerned, where it counts: "In the black night of their home Maxwell always endeared himself to her when she lay naked on her stomach and he slowly rubbed and gently squeezed her backside while whispering, 'I know my dog by the way he barks, I know my baby from the feeling in the dark.'"

Maxwell doesn't always speak in couplets, nor does Crouch always write in them (or, I should say, quote in them, since Crouch's couplets, like his title, are borrowed from jazz songs). But pairs and polarities in this novel about race (in Crouch's America there are only two races that matter, in much the same way that television has the Big Three and then those other networks) are more than a little in evidence, most notably in the person of Carla - who, it turns out, is a woman possessed of an "anatomical anomaly." To put it as bluntly as a friend of Maxwell's does, she's "a blonde with a black ass."

This information must be given its context. Here is the order of facts presented to us about Carla: we learn first, that she is white; second, that she has a black boyfriend; third, that problems have arisen in the relationship because of this discrepancy in skin tone; fourth, that "couldn't nobody tell [she] was white if all they got to see was the shadow of her profile"; fifth, that she has enjoyed Negro music since her girlhood days as "a local skating whiz who showed Olympic potential"; and sixth, that she is an aspiring jazz singer. In short, she is a step above a talking Barbie; she actually sleeps with her black friend, as opposed to hanging out with him in the Malibu beach house.

But the dozens of references to Carla's gigantic boody - Crouch's spelling; I always use a "t" myself - do more than eroticize her. They embody a theme that Crouch first articulated a few years ago in The All-American Skin Game, namely, that "the grand shindig of American civilization" is a product of miscegenation. And so race, far from being a hindrance in love, is the ideal way to spice up the pot. In life, who can say? But in this novel, we have only the evidence that the author provides, and those clues seem to lead to the following conclusion: Carla's whiteness is in fact irrelevant to her relationship with Maxwell, because it isn't real - the only thing white about Carla is her "mannish" Aryan sister, preparing for the "race war" out there in Ohio, and you can be sure her ass is as flat as Twiggy's - and because Carla has already submitted to black culture in the most primal sense. Boyfriend Maxwell, at any rate, is possessed of "the conqueror's spirit," which is to say, he is "not the kind of man who can feel comfortable under a woman," a fact that Carla acknowledges explicitly.

"Carla..."
"Yes, sweetheart."
"You know you couldn't hold me if I didn't want you to hold me."
"I know."
"But I would have had to hurt you, baby."
"Yes, you would. Right here."
"I love you too much for that."
"I know that. Maxwell..."
"Yes, baby."
"Oh, I don't know. I just love you. I just love you so much."

So Carla has submitted to her man. But to what end? In lieu of a love that is testified to but never witnessed, what we are left with is music. Maxwell is a tenor saxophonist, further along in his career than Carla, and, like her last boyfriend, the dead drummer Bobo, he uses his "horn" to "intimidate" Carla, and so bring her to a deeper understanding of her art:

Soaking in rhythm and stroking it and coming to know herself through it was what she had done - each ounce of her body carrying and sending the beat, from her big toes all the way under to the heels of her feet and up her ankles, then her legs, around the horn of her behind, up her spine and shoulders, scaling the vertebrae of her neck, the round back of her head, across the scalp, down her forehead, zooming off her nose, swinging back to her lips, gliding on down to her chin, dropping to her breast bone, then to each of her full but not heavy breasts, moving onto her belly, the beat crossing the pubic thatch that guarded her lower lips until...

until just when you think Crouch is finally going to give his readers a taste of the miscegenated shindig they have awaited for more than three hundred pages,

that beat disappeared through the invincible space between her vagina and the tops of her thighs: that concave cupping of air, never less than open, regardless of how close she held her legs together.

This passage is perhaps the most literal evocation of the rhythm method I've ever encountered. It's so fascinatingly Jungian that it's hard to put down, a true rape of anima by animus; but not even this juggernaut of phallocentric conceit can hide the fact that Crouch, for all his declarations in support of assimilation, is less interested in the union of black and white than in the inability of white people to consummate that union. From the back there is that sterile "Negroid boody," from the front a decoy vagina in which Maxwell's seed is continually wasted. And yet there is no hint of blame in Crouch's descriptions: here is Carla, ready for whatever her man has to give, even pain.

In his essays, Crouch repeatedly insists that "black Americans have had to scale, bore through, or detonate the prejudicial walls that blocked access to the banquet of relatively unlimited social advancement that we acknowledge as the grand inspirational myth of American life," a mixed metaphor of such bland grandiosity (barbarians at the gates, a place at the table, I have a dream) that it raises suspicion in the reader's mind. But it is his fiction that reveals Crouch's vision of American history to be, just like his women, full of holes. For whatever the coupling of black and white, the very nature of the union renders the product sterile and ungainly as a mule.

II.
Of course there is a plot. Stanley Crouch, like other social critics who treat fiction as an appendix to their field, has resorted to realism, because realism, like social criticism, is seen to lend itself to the reductive, instructive narrative. The reduction is that Carla is afraid Maxwell will leave her because she is white, but he doesn't leave her. The instruction is that it would be wrong for Maxwell to leave Carla as a consequence of her skin color, because race shouldn't interfere with love.

It's hard to render the story more fully than that. There are set pieces - a trip to Houston to visit Maxwell's parents; the return to New York City; bouts of drinking in various bars in various cities - but these diversions are almost wholly unrelated to the development of the characters and the relationship between them. Thus, on the second page of the novel we are told that after five years together "[e]verything the two knew about the other had become secondary to his being black and her being white," but four hundred pages later all we've learned is that Maxwell is "still sliding away." It takes another twenty pages before we learn that Maxwell had heretofore been "above the silly aspects of race, but in that last year before they traveled to visit Eunice and Ezekiel, he began hanging out with a different crowd." This "different crowd" is never seen, but it is presumably under their tutelage that

instead of being philosophical about on-duty cabs passing him up, or calmly telling off white people who tried to step in front of him in lines, Maxwell became extremely angry, returning home with one tale after another of how tired he was of eating shit just because his skin was dark. He started using some of those cliches that he used to make fun of, that "us versus them" philosophy that usually demanded certain kinds of ethnic costumes and body oils and hairstyles in order to make the clear point that these Americans were neither white people nor black people who had been overcome by white society. They were not anybody's black Anglo-Saxons. Or so they thought. To her dismay, especially since she was still dreaming of having a child, Maxwell sneered about the "almost niggers," "the not quite niggers," the "I-wish-I-was niggers" who had been so bleached out inside that their skin was just a husk, an ethnic mirage. They were black on the outside but corny as Kansas in the summertime. The contempt he showed for such people in his conversation when they appeared on television or in restaurants or came up to him asking for an autograph after a performance was incrementally frightening. It was as if, out of nowhere, he began to accept some old-fashioned idea about the complete separateness of black and white.

This paragraph, with its cobbled-together "clichés" and "old-fashioned ideas," comes 427 pages into a 530-page novel, and it is the closest thing we get to illustration or explanation of Maxwell's "sliding away," a slide that continues for another seventy pages or so with phrases such as "and on it went," and "for a while," until "out of nowhere" - and in a phone call, no less - a contrite Maxwell declares that "Ezekiel did not raise me to turn and run from the woman I love. Not for no niggers, not for no crackers, not for no dadgum body.'"

When Carla asks what had caused him to become concerned about her race in the first place - perhaps she, like the reader, is wondering what shadow conflict has been endured and overcome - all Maxwell says is, "I wanted to be something somebody was telling me to be"; but that "somebody" is as elusive as the "different crowd" that he's been "hanging out with," as hard to pin down as "these Americans" and "such people" and the ever-present "they" who people Maxwell's "'us versus them' philosophy." But no matter. "[H]er loneliness had been put on hold. Ooo, ooo, ooo: what a little mush on a moonstruck night will do." Crouch's allusive couplets tend to appear when there's a point to be made - or rather, to be missed.

But to focus on plot would be to miss the point along with him. Plot is only a skeleton in the modern novel, and a fragile one at that, right? As in Ulysses - whose banner headlines from the Telegraph Office chapter Crouch borrows for a set piece on a Negro church service - the flesh and blood of this novel are its diversions, almost all of which appear as recollections, "the marching legions of memory as they came to attack or rescue or soothe or mystify." Thus we are treated to multi-page descriptions of music ("His melodies might be long balletic bounds of sustained notes that sailed up over the meter"; "the drummer...had a sexy little triplet bouncing off of his snare that made her feel as if she were being patted on the ass" ) or art ("The flowers on canvas could lift you into the region of spiritual confidence that radiates from beauty so pure one would think those brushstrokes could turn a jar of piss into apple juice"; "it was a one-to-one relationship made successful or a failure by a third factor, that painter just as alone as Daniel Boone shouting at the top of a valley.")

Often these descriptions are couched in faux-Platonic dialogues between tongue-loosened drunks; and these dialogues allow Crouch to make even more preposterous pronouncements than he could in his own voice. For example, the origin of misogyny: "The moment in bed. That's where misogyny starts: when a guy goes through all of that and the pussy's not shit." For example, homosexuality and the abuse of freedom: "There were naked men with bleeding feet hoisted up from the floor and held by chains that formed seats from which their asses hung out. On the floor were cans of Crisco. Men would scoop out the right amount of Crisco and rub it on their forearms and the backs of their hands. Then they would push their fists up the rectums of the men sitting in the seats of the chains." For example, gridlock, Judaism, and the politics of guilt-tripping: "You sweat through that and the fucking pollution of all those cars making you feel like you know something, a little bit anyway, about the gas chambers some of these Jews always use as an I've-been-fucked-over-more-than-you credit card." And, of course, race relations, and Crouch's particular fascination with miscegenation: "the white boys who imitated the swaggering simian moves and gestures, bad taste, and worse behavior of rappers"; "these black kids wearing the false faces in a carnival of street niggerism...played into the hands of racists, or with all their adolescent energy, created so much disgust and fear, they helped breed racism"; "she was still full of that special sass and vinegar too many lost when they climbed up into the penthouse. No deracinated Negress was she."

I could go on, but why? Suffice it to say that here is one black man calling other black men monkeys, denying blackness to those African Americans who fail to live up to his standards and conferring it on those who do. All this from a writer who has proclaimed that American fiction should represent a "far, far richer sense of the inner lives that give our nation its particular complexity." This sentiment is grossly belied by Crouch's own attempt at rendering that "far, far richer sense." One closes Don't the Moon Look Lonesome with less sense of its characters' inner lives than of its author's need to swing back and forth between the roles of assimilationist peacemaker and agent provocateur. By which I mean that when I read Crouch's dismissal of Malcolm X's "absolutely inaccurate juxtaposition" of house niggers and field niggers in The All-American Skin Game, I couldn't help but think of that old adage about the pot and the kettle.

III.
Let's be blunt. Don't the Moon Look Lonesome is a terrible novel, badly conceived, badly executed, and put forward in bad faith; reviewing it is like shooting fish in a barrel. This doesn't mean Crouch is always or even often wrong in his opinions. In fact, I agree completely with his novel's premise: race shouldn't be a hindrance in love - nor in life, for that matter - but it sometimes is, and when that happens the parties involved should do everything to ameliorate the problem. Such a treatise seems hardly worth the trouble of a novel, especially in this day and age; but then Stanley Crouch isn't just another bad novelist.

If one were being generous, one could describe Crouch's agenda as nothing less than the ranking of the accomplishments of black culture; but that would be, again, missing the point. In fact most of Crouch's efforts, in this novel and in his essays, seem to me far more concerned with establishing his own authority to compile his specious list. Whether he's talking about Maxwell and Carla or O.J. and Nicole, the rightness or the wrongness of his evaluation always gives way to getting over, getting a rise, scoring points off his opponent. In the end, Crouch's anti-p.c. polemic comes across as a veil behind which he makes the kinds of criticisms of African American culture that white Americans are too cowed - or maybe just too smart - to put forward themselves.

In fact, Crouch's stance resembles nothing so much as hip-hop - though Crouch's rhetorical theater is less sophisticated than that of the current generation of black musicians he so loathes. Hip-hop's iconography and lexicography present a romanticized version of ghetto life to its white audience while simultaneously appropriating, inflating, and parroting the trappings of bourgeois wealth to its black fans; and if you think that's lame, compare it to Crouch's scorecarding of good Negroes (Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Johnnie Cochran), bad Negroes (James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Christopher Darden), and fence-straddlers (Richard Wright, O.J. Simpson). Crouch is a writer who plays fast and loose with his words, deflecting examination by accusing his enemies of the tactics he uses himself. For example, he denounces James Baldwin as a "professional Negro" who "engages" by "harangue," "selling out to hysterical alienation by so overstating the case that the issue is smudged beyond recognition." Whatever one thinks of Baldwin, the description applies perfectly to Crouch himself, especially if you change the word "alienation" to "assimilation."

Implicit in this posturing is a canonical self-presentation ("This, my second book of essays, is dedicated to my mother, Emma Bea Crouch, who died a few years ago on Bloomsday, symbolizing for me the essential role she had played in my development as a writer") that rests less on a sense of personal ability than on what Crouch, like almost every writer since Zora Neale Hurston, has called the "lyricism of black American culture." In an essay on Albert Murray in Always in Pursuit, Crouch quotes his subject's observation that "no other people in the land have as yet evolved a characteristic idiom that reflects a more open, robust, and affirmative disposition toward diversity and change. Nor is any other idiom more smoothly geared to open-minded improvisation. Moreover, never has improvisation been more conditioned by esthetic values." This is a declaration that reeks of professional jingoism of the type Crouch sees in Baldwin and his heirs. In such a vision, a black person's every utterance is both a moral pronouncement and an aesthetic event, and to fail at it is somehow to fail at being black. And yet here is a writer who says that someone "experienced extreme anger" instead of got mad. His characters are always "answering in the affirmative" instead of just saying yes, possibly as part of the effort of "maintaining intimacy"; and they can't even glance at FDR Drive without remembering that it was "named after the man who had supplied the money for the Triborough to be finished and had put many New Yorkers back to work during the Depression by federally financing all manner of building."

More serious, though, is the sentimental sleight of hand that characterizes Crouch's polemic. His method is to attack various generalities - Malcolm X's categories of house and field slaves; W.E.B. DuBois's notion of an African American as a person with two souls, "one American, one Negro" - with the classic one-two of slippery discourse. He first dismisses them as generalities, which clearly they are, and then he makes the general statement that these and other tropes have no basis in reality, which clearly they do. This is essentially the rhetoric of political speechifying, and for the life of me I've never been able to figure out why readers succumb to it over and over again, besides the fact that the effort of refuting it reduces you to a nitpicking pedantry that can drive you insane after a while.

Still, for the sake of thoroughness, let's consider one example, from the essay on Albert Murray quoted earlier. In this essay, Crouch is presumably explaining the way Northerners view Southern violence:

The relationship of pride to bloodlust was transmuted into the vision of mad gallantry that took John Brown to Harper's Ferry and made possible those reckless attacks by Confederate troops that resulted in the green fields turned red by the gore of defeat, defeat at the hands of Yankees, Midwestern farm boys and Northern kids scooped up out of the cities, all backed up by the indispensable help of the Negro, whose freedom was the issue of that war in the first place. The South is where most of the Civil War battles were fought and where Washington, D.C., is located. So we too frequently see the South as a place of dislocation and barbarism, imbecility and decadence. We, presumptively perched in the alto and soprano reaches of the nation, look upon Southerners, the residents of the bass clef, with a mix of pity and contempt.

Now, John Brown was a Northerner, born in Ohio and first attaining historical prominence with the door-to-door murder of five pro-slavery men in Kansas. And when Robert E. Lee attacked the fort that Brown held at Harper's Ferry in 1859, it was Lee - then still in the employ of the only American government in existence - who won, and had Brown hanged. What "mad gallantry" and "recklessness" had to do with either side's actions is unclear. If Crouch's point is that John Brown somehow started the War of the Rebellion, as Northerners called it at the time, then he's off by two years and is rendering history as simplistically as when he says that freeing the slaves was "the issue" of the war. Lincoln never hid his motivation for declaring war ("If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it..."); his Emancipation Proclamation did not even apply to slaves in those states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) that had not joined the Confederacy, and in fact one of the prime motivating factors in the Proclamation was the hope that it would deter Southern slaves from helping their masters in what the Virginia grandfather of a friend of mine called the War of Northern Aggression to his dying day. In fact, most of the battles of what was also called the War Between the States, the War of Secession, and the War for Southern Independence did take place in the South, just as most of the battles in World War II took place in Europe, but why the former should be rendered "a place of dislocation and barbarism, imbecility and decadence" while the latter is the birthplace of all the ideas "that were expanded and refined in order to adjust to the intricacies of human experience, action, conflict, and ambition within these United States" is, like so much else in this single paragraph, unclear.

And then, finally, there is the conceit about "the alto and soprano reaches of the nation" looking down on "the residents of the bass clef." This particular metaphorical construction is the most often repeated stylistic formula that Crouch uses in his polemical writing and in his fiction, starting with the dedication page ("TO JUDY JOYCE, whose knowledge of food service and sailing helped me caulk the hull of one chapter") to the last paragraph of the last page of the novel ("The emotion that those tunes allowed her to free nearly lifted Carla up off the floor and sent the girl from South Dakota safely sailing out of the window, like the very first dinosaur who ever learned how to use her wings"). It is difficult to figure out why exactly, especially given the strange places that these sentences tend to end up. Dinosaurs? Learning to use their wings? And this relates to Carla's happiness how?

My hunch is that it has something to do with the fact that Crouch's book is subtitled "A Novel in Blues and Swing." Something to do with jazz, in other words, which is somehow made an ancillary subject to every topic Crouch has written on, from Ellison to O.J.; something to do with improvisation, which Crouch has elsewhere declared as "very important to my vision of life in our time." In fact, "important" doesn't begin to capture his feelings on the subject: "I believe that one of the central intellectual shortcomings of American life is the fact that so little has been done with the flexible profundity of jazz metaphor."

And so we come to what might possibly be the one justifiable raison d'être for this novel - not theme, not narrative, not sex, not politics, but aesthetics, specifically an improvisational jazz aesthetic that Crouch believes is "not only about transforming pulp frogs, [but] also about slaying the dragon and making cuisine out of his corpse." (The dragon, by the way, is "our industrial world," and if that doesn't clear things up, I'm sorry.) In essay after essay, Crouch carries the torch for jazz, calling it not only the greatest American musical form - which seems as safely incontestable as his assertion that "black Americans have had to scale, bore through, or detonate...prejudicial walls" - but also a potential source of inspiration for all the arts, a model for all that is good, true, beautiful. The problem is that Crouch is right: jazz has not had the kind of ramifying cultural impact lesser art forms have had, and the same is true of the notions of improvisation and individuality he sees as metaphorically attendant upon it.

To some degree, Crouch's question begs its own answer. After all, what aspect of composition isn't improvisation? Don't we make it all up, from narrative to character to the sentences and the metaphors that we use to describe them? And he seems to be missing another obvious point: writing isn't music. It isn't performed. Novels, unlike scores, can't be interpreted, can't be improvised once printed. A novel, even more than a painting or sculpture, which can deteriorate with time, is the most reified of all art forms - a point poignantly rendered in Nabokov's "Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer."

Turning the novel into a jazz composition would require more than Crouch's formal, uh, innovation, which, though it aims to connote freedom, spontaneity, and improvisation, comes across as merely unrevised. It would require an intermediary figure between reader and writer, a performer who not only adds inflection and emphasis, but also has the freedom to change words as he sees fit, shuffle sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps he would end this particular book on a more realistic note, or cut out the middle four hundred pages, since they do little more than repeat themselves over and over again.

But there is a deeper problem inherent in Crouch's use of the jazz metaphor. Crouch claims to believe in improvisation, but what he really believes in is idiosyncracy - that is, individuality; and when this notion is examined further, it becomes clear that what Crouch really believes in is The Individual, the one to whom all other individuals should aspire. In other words, jazz is an improvisational musical form encouraging individual expression on the bandstand. Yet a belief in jazz culture is a codified and largely dated way of life - which is why all those references to cool cats and jive turkeys in Baldwin now make us wince. Charlie Parker was an individual, but all those jazzmen who play in the style of Bird are not. Ralph Ellison was an individual; Stanley Crouch, his student, is not. Crouch claims to be inventing a new kind of writing, but the truth is he's just itching to join the club. And when he says his new writing is a jazz derivative, "a novel in blues and swing," what he's really doing is using Hurston's "lyricism of black American culture" as a way of deflecting examination - criticize me, and you criticize black culture - a pose which, though less blunt than the letter-writing campaign protesting the neglect of Toni Morrison for the National Book Award in 1987, is no less political, and no closer to actual questions of quality.

As far as I can tell, the only useful lesson of which Stanley Crouch's novel reminds us is this: in art, you can't fake it. And while I'm sure there are still people who condemn interracial relationships, I doubt many of them will be reading this novel, and so it is that in response to the question in the novel's title one wants to answer "No," simply, wearily, but also sternly. "It doesn't."


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