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Harper's Magazine
Friday, April 23rd, 2010
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by John Edgar Wideman


A review by John Leonard

In Fanon (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95), as in most fiction by John Edgar Wideman, the wounds are equally personal and historical, equally inside out and outside in, jury-rigged and hardwire. So Wideman, thinking about the West Indian psychiatrist and political activist who wrote The Wretched of the Earth, who fought for France against the Nazis and against France in Algeria's war for independence, will invent a novelist named Thomas who wants to write a book on Fanon and/or make a film about him with Jean-Luc Godard, who also puts in a truculent appearance. But don't expect to learn more about Fanon than you do about Wideman's brother in prison, or his mother in the Homewood ghetto of Pittsburgh, or Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm X. This is Wideman's mulligan stew -- on the one hand, the Homewood boy who went on scholarship to Penn, and from Penn to Oxford, and from Oxford to Iowa Writers' Workshop, nods his head to Marx, Freud, Yeats, Sartre, Joyce, Nabokov, and Baudelaire; on the other, the novelist and college professor who still feels guilty about going to Europe instead of jail signifies his solidarity with W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon by riff, scat, and Igbo.

How this mixture works is mysterious, but it always has. We walk in Wideman's fiction down a corridor of masks, a homecoming of its own sweet sort, like Cecil coming back in Hurry Home from a dream of black kings in ancient Spain to race war and self-hate on mean American streets; like Cudjoe in Philadelphia Fire coming back from an island in the Aegean to the bombing of Osage Avenue during an all-black children's production of The Tempest; like Wideman himself, writing The Cattle Killng so he can read it to his father, the prodigal son returned from Ulysses and The Waste Land to the awful violence visited upon his abducted people, and the violence those people have done to one another and themselves -- the brother he puzzles in Brothers and Keepers; the son he mourns in Fatheralong; all those flamed-colored, war-painted, basketball-dribbling children lost to drugs and rage, drowned, shot, hanged, burned.

John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.

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