The Walls Of Our Cage: Reading John Edgar Wideman

He stared at me, waiting for an answer. At home we didn’t get in other people’s faces like that. You talked towards a space and the other person had a choice of entering or not entering …

I was today years old a few months ago when I first heard of the great American author John Edgar Wideman. A friend from Pittsburgh invited me to participate in the #WidemanChallenge, in which a few literary critics, bloggers and journalists spend the end of 2020 calling attention to a writer that too few people know about – an important voice from the Rust Belt whose works are keenly relevant in the year of George Floyd.

I agreed to join this challenge and dove into a recent book by John Edgar Wideman, a volume of short stories called American Histories, which fascinated me with spinning fantasies of conversations with the pre-Civil-War abolitionist John Brown, brushes with Sonny Rollins and Jean-Michel Basquiat and fractured scenes of family life, campus life, city life, trouble life, conflicts and confrontations. But I could tell I was reading a late career book, because the sophisticated complexity of the intellectual journeys in this book made me feel like I had walked into the last act of a Philip Glass opera. I couldn’t quite piece together who this author was from American HIstories, so I turned to a key early book by this author, Brothers and Keepers, originally published in 1984. With this book I began to understand the mission John Edgar Wideman is on, and the reason his growing readership is so enthusiastic about him.

The way people face each other is a running theme in Wideman’s work. Here he’s describing a man he met in prison, while visiting his brother who was serving a life sentence.

People don’t so much meet as explode in each other’s faces. I say “Hi” to a tall guy who looks like somebody I might have played ball with once. He wasn’t anybody I knew but he could have been. One ballplayers knows every other ballplayer anyway, so I said “Hi.” Get back no hint of recognition. Nothing saying yes or no or maybe in his black face. The basketball courts where I sweated and he sweated, the close scores, the impossible shots, the chances to fly, to be perfect a second or two, to rise above the hard ground and float so time stands still and you make just the right move before your sneakers touch down again. None of that. No past or future we might have shared. Nothing at all. A dull, hooded “Hey, man” in reply and I backed off quickly.

Brothers and Keepers is a memoir of what happened when John Edgar Wideman’s younger brother Robby got involved in a botched armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison for murder. Robby is John younger brother by several years, so his younger brother is a stranger to him in several ways, and we feel this strangeness when John starts visiting Robby in prison to write this book. Robby tells his life story in his own words, and we are with John when he discovers for the first time how much sibling rivalry his younger brother always felt for him, and begins to ponder all the ways Robby’s fate was shaped by the family that raised them both.

The story of the murder is laid out in heartfelt detail, narrated directly by Robby, who has a gift with words just like the author of this book. It starts out as an ambitious but comically mishandled drug deal by a group of young Homewood, Pittsburgh friends playing at the criminal life. The plot morphs into a sale of stolen TV sets, and the slow banality of the endless planning and delays of this dumb plot impart a sense of ironic pointlessness to the series of mistakes that ended in a sentence of jail for life.

The loss of human potential feels tragic when we overhear Robby in a flashback, talking on the phone to a girlfriend. This book’s portrayal of prison life feels claustrophobic, as it should, and it left me wanting to rattle the walls of my own cage. The country both John Edgar Wideman and I are citizens of is currently reeling from massive breakdowns, including a national wave of police riots prodded directly by Donald Trump and William Barr in a cynical attempt to create enough social crisis to steal an election. They almost succeeded.

USA’s corruption is at its worst with our prison-for-profit culture. We have the disgraceful dishonor of the world’s largest percentage of human beings in prison. We also lead, of course, in profiteering from our massive prison population, which has been compared to slavery. John Edgar Wideman’s book, written in 1984 when our prison problem was also terrible, does not list statistics or argue for political policies. It just makes you feel the walls of the cage.

Good news thankfully arrives in the afterword in the 2020 edition of this book, though: Robert Wideman was finally released from prison after 44 years of exemplary behavior, and is now doing great work speaking out about the same good causes he advocated for from prison.

Brothers and Keepers is an unforgettable book, and I now realize it is a pillar of African-American literature that might stand on a shelf between I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece was compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Notes From Underground, and Brothers And Keepers shares with both books a searing sense of humor and burning irony, as well as a churning, comically infinite self-questioning and self-doubting of every thought:

Gradually, I’m teaching myself to decompartmentalize. This book is part of the unlearning of my first response to my brother’s imprisonment. In spite of good intentions, I constantly backslide … My oversights embarrass me, shake me up, because I’m reminded that in crucial ways my brother still doesn’t exist for me in the intervals between visits. The walls become higher, thicker, unbreachable when I allow myself to be part of the conspiracy.

I’m teaching myself to decomparmentalize too.

* * * * *

Dear friends of Literary Kicks, I hope you are managing to survive 2020 as well as any of us can. It’s been a tough and insane year.

I don’t think I’ve told you about my last opera podcast, which is about Puccini’s La Boheme and features my friend Vicki Zunitch, who also has a lot to say about the movie Moonstruck for some reason. We try to analyze the meaning of La Boheme as a literary and social work, which I know is a whole lot of people’s idea of good fun. It sure is mine.

The podcast I am really trying to do a great job on is the World BEYOND War podcast, because I know our troubled, angst-ridden and perplexed modern world needs good straight real talk right now about political activism: antiwar activism, climate and nature activism, prison activism, activism for racial and economic justice. Especially antiwar activism, because that’s my thing. I’m really proud of the podcast episode I recorded with five friends from the board of directors of World BEYOND War, where I am technology director. These are five serious and seasoned peace activists from different parts of the United States of America: Donnal Walter of Little Rock, Arkansas, Odile Hugonot Haber of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Gar Smith of Berkeley, California, John Reuwer of Burlington, Vermont and the legendary anti-nuclear-weapons activist Alice Slater of New York City. Our topic is taken from a song: “This Is America”. I also manage to slip some Bruce Springsteen into this episode.

Both Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera and World BEYOND War: A New Podcast are available for free on all popular podcast platforms. If you haven’t tried listening to podcasts yet – what are you waiting for?

Have a great holiday season and New Years Eve, everybody! Wear your masks and stay safe. Follow me on Twitter if you want to hear my political rants, and on Instagram if you want to see the world through my eyes. Love to you all … Litkicks will see you again in 2021.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!