High Cotton

Billed as fiction, Darryl Pinckney’s High Cotton exists in that overpopulated literary limbo somewhere between first novel and autobiographical memoir. But maybe, given Pinckney’s narrative of a coddled, precocious black youth growing up in a white suburb of Indianapolis before migrating east to Columbia University, limbo is just where his book belongs. Indeed, its unnamed narrator’s teenage infatuation with British rock suggests that the book might more appropriately have been titled ”Nowhere Man,” after the Beatles song.

As long as Pinckney sticks to telling tales about his narrator’s Southern-born, Ivy League-educated grandfather and his grandfather’s brother, Uncle Castor — two wonderfully vivid characters uniquely at odds with the white man’s world and each other-the book comes alive. But like an awful lot of Americans, his hero’s lack of a prefabricated ”identity,” or, more precisely, his discomfort with the values urged upon him by his stern grandfather and his prosperous parents, gives him no end of trouble. ”I didn’t see why their Negro problem and mine always had to come into things,” he complains, ”but then I had not grown up in the days when a position in the post office was a prime civil service occupation.”

Though Pinckney was raised on tales of suffering and perseverance, his own worst experience on the racial front seems to have been having a junior high teacher ask whether he’d earned a good score on a test by cheating, or to realize as an adult in New York that his mere presence could make whites nervous: ”Taxi drivers would not stop for me after dark, white girls jogged to keep ahead of my shadow thrown at their heels by the amber streetlamps. Part of me didn’t blame them, but most of me was hurt.” Yet he writes of his own infrequent excursions into Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant like a Woody Allen character visiting an Indiana Jones set.

Well, nobody says black writers have to stick to slave narratives and tales of exploitation. Nobody except this narrator, that is, a man obsessed with his own inauthenticity to the point of paralysis. Writing dismissively about his teen worship of British rock stars, for example, Pinckney’s hero is too self- involved to notice the irony that singers like the Rolling Stones, whom he idolized, were themselves changelings who took a black American art form like the blues and returned it to America charged with a feeling uniquely their own. Ultimately, that’s what art is for.

Anyhow, mixed feelings are one thing, mixed metaphors another. It’s when the author strains for significance that his book is weakest. ”The ledger of how to be simultaneously yourself and everyone else who might observe you,” he tells readers, ”the captain’s log of travel in the dual consciousness, the white world as the deceptive sea and the black world as the armed galley, gave me the comic feeling that I was living alongside myself, that there was a me and a ventriloquist’s replica of me on my lap, and that both of us awaited the intervention of a third me, the disembodied me, before we could begin the charade of dialogue.”

Say what? C-

High Cotton
  • Book