“NATE”–Now available at Amazon

#Nate #BlackWriterInBerlin

Those of you who always wanted to read this book can now get it at Amazon, on Kindle.

A new paperback version is also in the making.

I felt compelled to reissue Nate because the issues it deals with have not only NOT gone away, but have become even more pertinent today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. I put the finishing touches on this book in 1998, but the overall text was done by December of 1996. Nothing, as far as I can see, has really changed at all in the past two decades, unless it’s for the worse.

Everything that YouTube bloggers have been ranting and raving about these past few years–the gender wars between black men and women, so-called “alpha male” and “beta male” syndromes (particularly the latter, and especially concerning black men), coonery, thuggery, gang violence, the whole so-called “ratchet” mentality, etc. It also deals with the buffoonery that infests HBCUs, and I guess that my ridicule of black university life (represented in the novel by the now-notorious Coon State University) got underneath the skin of more than a few black readers of Nate–those who bothered to read it, that is.

Someone on AALBC.com who reviewed the book (who called himself “Thumper”) panned the book, calling it “used dishwater going down the drain.” Other black critics decried the lack of plot and took me to task for not creating “likable” characters. Ishmael Reed, Darryl Dickson-Carr, Darius James and many other writers and readers have thought otherwise.

Of course, there is no “plot” in the traditional, conventional sense. Nate is a picaresque novel. Most Black authors (American, that is) don’t write in a picaresque style, though it is the oldest and most traditional of novel styles. The style of writing was developed in Spain, with obvious roots in Arabic/Moorish literature. Don Quixote as well as Paul Beatty’s The Sellout are picaresque. Darius James’s Negrophobia is also a picaresque novel. It is a style of narrative in which the protagonist–usually a rascal like Don Quixote or a naif like Candide–stumbles from one ridiculous episode to the next; the story is generally told in a humorous, grotesque or satirical fashion.

Nate is all of these.

*

Originally published in 2006, this powerful, disturbing, award-winning novel chronicles the free-wheeling mishaps of one Nathan James Morris, a talented, ambitious middle-class black kid from Prince Georges County, Maryland. At 19, he has been expelled from Freedom College for alleged misconduct. He has few friends, aside from the parasitic Guy Sellers; and save for his scholarship’s chump change, even fewer dollars. Hurt, angry, and in desperate need of cash, he joins the Marines. “The road to manhood is paved with tanks and convoys!” he loudly boasts.

But he soon discovers that his own “road” has been paved with far more unpleasant things: whimsical officers, endless bomb attacks, disease, an unbelievable desolation. After the military, his “road” gets rockier….an unhappy reuniting with family, friends and fiancee….a kidnaping in Turkey ….violent confrontations with neo-Nazis and racist North Africans….his studies and miseries at C.S.U., America’s most prestigious black university, and his final days in a DC slum, as witness to (and participant in) the wild destruction of his older brother’s marriage, with a little help from the one “friend” who never seems to leave him be: Guy Sellers.

“Lewis is an original talent whose English cuts through a lot of contemporary BS like a butcher knife….It’s important that a powerful novel such as this surfaces at a time when the black lit. scene is being smothered by a lot of dumb frivolous chick-lit and down low scribbling. Anybody want to know where the kick-behind black male literary tradition of Himes, Wright, John A. Williams went? It’s alive and well in Berlin.”

–Ishmael Reed, author of JUICE! and Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: Return of the Nigger Breakers

“A brutally funny novel satirizing diverse subjects from American military misadventures, African-American cultural politics, to the chaos of contemporary American life. Like the protagonists of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the eponymous hero, Nathan James Morris, is a classic picaro, a naive everyman and would-be artist whose foolhardiness shows us more about American life and the human condition than would seem possible in one novel.”

–Darryl Dickson-Carr, Associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University and author of The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction

#Nate #BlackWriterInBerlin
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American Book Award-winner “NATE” Being Reissued in November, 2017–on Kindle

From Ishmael Reed: “I enjoyed reading NATE so much that I read scenes to anyone within hearing distance. P. Lewis is an original talent whose English cuts through a lot of contemporary BS like a butcher knife. His characters don’t give a flying F- whether you feel for them or not. It’s important that a powerful novel such as this surfaces at a time when the black lit. scene is being smothered by a lot of dumb frivolous chick-lit and down low scribbling. Anybody want to know where the kick-behind black male literary tradition of Himes, Wright, John A. Williams went? It’s alive and well in Berlin.”  

From Darryl Dickson-Carr: “A brutally funny novel satirizing diverse subjects from American military misadventures, African-American cultural politics, to the chaos of contemporary American life. Like the protagonists of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the eponymous hero, Nathan James Morris, is a classic picaro, a naive everyman and would-be artist whose foolhardiness shows us more about American life and the human condition than would seem possible in one novel.”

 

My second novel, Nate, won an American Book Award in 2006. A lot of people have been asking about this novel and how they can get their hands on it. I’m putting out an e-book of it in November, and the following year a CreateSpace version will be available on Amazon. (That’s the best I can do right now.)

Also keep an eye out for my third novel, Berlin Asylum, in the Spring of 2018. The both of them will certainly raise eyebrows. 

So for a little taste of the novel which rubbed black middle class sensibilities the wrong way, read below…

_____________________________

Chapter Thirteen

Imagine yourself entering Robeson Hall, early in the morning, hungry, exhausted, unwashed, your brain inundated by everyone’s wild screams. Look into their faces as you pass: there’s your story. They make you reach for your revolver. The coeds are everywhere, with plenty of time on their hands and nothing to do except sit on the stairs or slump against the walls and around the soda machine or filling up the lounges and the bathrooms, eating, drinking, playing their radios; they look so charming and luscious, like JET centerfolds—you’d love to have them dangling from the end of your dick—until they open their mouths, roll their eyes, and look at you. They BREATHE hostility and contempt. It oozes like sweat from every pore of their over pampered skins.

They look even more brutal than the 34th Vandal’s worst MP’s. They look ever more mercenary, more cold-blooded, more hostile, and often, they even strike you with terror. I listen to them speak; it sounds so affected, so childish, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Absolutely superficial. But they seem contented enough with life—so whenever I see one of those cute, cuddly coeds coming up my way as I pass through the lobby to see my name on the Dean’s List—after licking asses and not getting my due for it—I deliberately let the door fly into their face. Some of them are scared of me; others resolutely hostile, though I haven’t been attacked—not yet. “Dirty black-ass motherfucker!” one cute coed clucked when I hurled the door in her face.

I shrugged. Why bother with manners if it doesn’t help?

I’ve got fifteen minutes; no assignment is due in Professor Spade’s class, so I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time here. I hadn’t been doing any homework for a week, anyway, I couldn’t concentrate. I could always do my artwork in the studios, but I had to be careful lest one of the students broke in and stole my work and fixed his or her name to it—something that happened all the time. And Leopold Spade—I finally admitted to myself, with some deliberation, that I genuinely hated him. He is one of the few people I’ve ever truly despised. I didn’t want to admit this at first; I wanted to accept his arrogance for something other than just crude hostility. Besides, I had heard from so many people that Spade really admired my work and “had nothing but praise for it”, so I couldn’t figure out why he was being so cool and nonchalant. But I was still young; I had a lot to learn about C.S.U. art instructors.

Designers, without exception, are assholes, sociopaths, egomaniacs and insufferable windbags. And there is no design teacher without a record-book full of failures and withdrawals and these sudden, strange disappearances (“incompletes”) so common amongst Coon State art students. Whenever Spade shows up in class or up the hall, every one of the freshmen groans in disgust as he whistles his self-satisfied, dreaded ass off.  Worse still, he shakes down every cunt in the classroom. At the end of each class (like at the end of his dick) all the girls hover around him like mosquitoes, chirping and cooing lasciviously: they being women, he can pass them with an “A” if he can fuck them. That’s how he shakes them down, the bastard. But he occupies an enviable and almost eminent position in the local art community. He’s gracious, so I’m told; he’s helped many a career, he’s so fucking concerned about “his people”, a man of the streets, a block boy bathing in a tub of champagne. All of which doesn’t explain why he refuses to give me an “A” or “B”, no matter how much time and effort I put into all the work I dish out to him.

Fortunately, there was a godsend seated at the far end of the classroom. I remembered her face very well—her chestnut-colored hair, long sexy legs, almond eyes, puckering lips, slender build did not escape my memory. It was Maya Arschloch. The one Marcus disdained because he said she had a “svelte” ass. At first, I was highly suspicious—I thought she was some agent sent by the consulate to have me jugged. But when I broke the ice with her I found she knew nothing of my desertion. Solid, I thought. The girl had quit the goddamn consulate two days after I called up sick.

“I was wondering why you never came back,” she said, sipping a soda through a straw. “Hell, I decided to take off myself. The nerve of you guys working there, talking all that trash about us! Especially you, Nathan.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you,” she said, “Because you’re so much better than the scum who worked there!”

“Safiya and Khalida were scum, too, you know,” I insisted.

“Yeah, but MARCUS?! I mean—damn! He was impossible. And such a fucking racist, it was incredible. He was always looking through my things—I don’t know why, unless he was looking for nude pictures or some shit. Oh, my God, Nathan,—look.”

“Where?”

I followed her finger to the man seated two rows away from us, three seats from the wall in back; his bespectacled face was filled with bruises, his hair uncut, his sport coat scuffed. “That’s onea my old boyfriends,” she told me— “you think all that stuff about him is true?”

“What stuff?”

“Didn’t you hear the rumor that he’s a male whore, and he supposedly sucks people off for forty dollars a pop? That’s—Sellers! Guy Sellers!” She gasps…. “Oh my God!”

I swear I felt my hair stand on end when she said that. But, thanks to Christ, that was NOT Guy Sellers—the man just looked very similar, that’s all. He was medium-to-dark, like Guy was; his eyes were full and round like his but, thankfully, they were grey. Never minding this strange Guy impersonator, however: some voice just outside the classroom provoked an even greater feeling of dread: Professor Spade. Guy, after all, was just a bad memory; this motherfucker was real. And he never looked more ominous when he strode into the classroom.

We all quickly fell silent.

Spade was a dark-skinned, balding man who wore round mirror shades. He had an angular face with a thick nose and a smug, tight mouth. He looked like a fucking murderer. I bade hello to him, just to say something, maybe to get on whatever good side I still thought he possessed….but Spade said not a word. He drew up his shades, took them off, and then briefly landed his eyes on me.

He stood there looking at me in a very unpleasant way. It was a strange look of disdain, the kind of look I once found in the eyes of some hateful corporal. Whatever the hell was eating him up, I knew I had nothing to do with it.

“Someone’s been smoking in here,” he said, coldly. “Was it you, Mister Lomax?”

“No,” spits the battered-faced nerd from the rear in a muffled, weak, self-conscious voice.

“Excuse me, I asked you a question, so I’d like for you to answer it, please,” he then snorts, pompously.

“I said  NO,”  Mister Lomax snorts in anger, “I didn’t smoke in here. I don’t smoke, sir. You know I don’t!”

“No, Mister Lomax, I DON’T know that you don’t smoke, thank you—for your information. You know,” he adds, icily, “you should learn to show me some respect when you walk in here next time.”

Spade takes out his stool and sits on his bony ass while Mr. Lomax looks at him perplexedly. Today the bastard is in a strange rage, and he himself admits to it. He pompously sniffs the air, and looks at me again. Uh oh. I know what he’s going to do, what he’s going to say. I’ve heard it for the past year already.

“So, Mister Morris,” he continues, laying his things out on the table, “it seems you finally decided to come to class again and take this course for a third time?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I need to. That’s the only reason why.”

“You WHAT?!” he suddenly spat, jerking his head up so vehemently it frightened even me. “Well, I….I said—”

“You said you needed credits, is that right? That’s what I THOUGHT I heard you say! Is that right?”

Everyone was looking at him and I, scratching their heads….

“Yes, I said that,” I stammered, looking into his hard eyes, “I….need them to pass. To graduate.”

The students, Maya included, found my mumbling and fumbling very funny. Spade took his goddamn eyes off me for once, and scanned the class with them. “You must be joking,” he suddenly said. “Hand in your assignment, Mister Morris. I want to see what you’ve done that makes you think you’re so damn tough.”

I looked askance at him. “I didn’t say—”

“Hand in your assignment, Mister Morris,” he snapped. “NOW.”

I dug it out of my bag and made it over to his table, almost feeling as if I hadn’t really left the military. Spade looked at it, over and over, up and down; Maya was sulking in a corner flashing nervous grins; Mister Lomax was looking up at the ceiling, and then at me—he put his finger to his head and “fired.” I know, my eyes tell him, you don’t have to tell me a thing.

“Morris,” Spade shot, “tell me, what’s so damn great about this thing? This stinks!”

He hurls it on the table.

“This is slop, Nathaniel Morris. SLOP. What makes you think you can say what you said an’ just—you know….”

“Say about what?”

“You know what I mean, Mister Morris,” he shot back.

“I think you’re nuts,” I mumbled out loud.

Spade looked up at me once again. “I know I didn’t hear Mr. Morris say what I thought because if he did, he’s not going to find being in this class a very pleasant experience at allllllll.” He cocks his head. “Let me clarify myself, Mister Morris. You—I find you very disrespectful to all the people in this art department. VERY disrespectful.”

“You told Lomax the same thing,” I grumbled.

“I’m not talking about Carl, sir, I’m talking about YOU.”

“But what the hell did I do?”

Spade took a deep breath, shook his head, and sat down. He flopped some papers down on his table; he looked over them for a long time. I couldn’t figure out what his damn problem was myself. “Morris, this is a D-minus,” he snaps, tacking a sheet of paper onto my assignment—the one I’d slaved on all night, the one I had swimming in my head for so long I couldn’t remember. Then all the other students were told to turn theirs in. I was aghast to note that theirs was shit compared to what I’d done.

“Morris,” he begins, as the students stack up their shit in front of him, “Mister Morris. Lissen to me. One month has already passed in this class, and your grades right now are so bad, I don’t even know why you are even bothering to hang around. I doubt very seriously if you can accumulate enough A’s to pass this course with a ‘D’. Maybe, if you would stop clowning around, get serious, an’ show me work comparable to what I’ve seen you do, then, maybe, we’ll see about you getting passing grades. I want to see you in this class. I am NOT going to let you slide, mister—”

“I did my work just like anyone else in here, I don’t know why YOU’RE pissed, unless you personally dislike the damn thing. Or,” I said, jerking my brow up at him, “maybe it’s something else.”

“Oh? Like—”

“I don’t know,” I snorted, “I just think you have a problem with me being in your class. But that’s tough. I gotta right to take this class like anyone else.”

“You know, you really didn’t have to come to class, you coulda stayed home—”

“But I chose to! What the hell’s the matter with that, anyway?”

“Nate, you listen, and listen hard. Do you REALLY want to learn something from us, or do you just want to disturb us again?”

“Disturb—?”

“Yes! Disturb. You disturb this class by coming in late, that’s disturbing as hell, Nate.”

“I wasn’t late this time.”

“Listen, man. Don’t you even care if you graduate or not? What’s the reason for all the clowning around? The bad assignments? What?”

“I’ve been doing my very best,” I insisted.

“I asked you a question,” he shot back—“What is the reason for it?”

“But you come in late, and others do, too! Why single me out?”

“Me?” Spade spat, pointing arrogantly to himself, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “What about me? I’m not talking about ME, Mister Nate. I’M talking about YOU.  What is it now? Too much fun? Alcohol? Drugs?….Sex? Don’t tell me….it’s the sex, isn’t it?”

I try to keep from hurling something into his face—a bottle on the floor, a thick piece of wood, a stray tire-iron, a balled-up piece of paper. I feel his hatred building up in my bones like poisonous phosphates. The guy starts getting red underneath his ebony tint; my stomach tightens. Every week it’s the same old dreary shit. Spade glares at me one more time and then snarls “get out”. Just like that. “Mister Nathaniel Morris,” he says, “please leave this classroom immediately, and come see me after class.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I protested.

“Now,” he snapped.

Joe and Jacky Cooke appear just as I’m making it out the gate, past the entrance where the cars come in. Two of my “good friends,” whom I’ve known for about a year. One of them trim and smartly casual, the other a big, fat, tall behemoth dressed in shabby T-shirt and jeans. Of course, Jacky is the monster, the toughie, who was so hurt by Coon State’s rejection of him that he went mad, grabbed his soprano sax—and bopped his music instructor in the head with it. Joe, on the other hand, is just a nice guy who amuses himself observing my social gaucherie. Remember him? He was the schmuck I encountered a couple years ago when I was living in Adams-Morgan. Along with him comes Carl Lomax, bemoaning his own plight at C.S.U. and pathetic as usual. Joe calls out to me while I’m down on Georgia Avenue, and, as is the custom, I snub Carl and face Joe. Carl angrily walks away.

I’m sorry, but that’s just the way things are. I have a bad enough reputation as it is without Carl buzzing around me like a fruit-fly.

“Hey, Nate,” Joe says, once he approaches, “Where you headed?”

“Nowhere special,” I say, still angry, still hearing Spade’s sneers in my head. “I guess I’ll go to a museum or something.”

Jacky frowned. “A museum?” He raised his brows. “Oh, I get it! Wanna talk to somea those artsy-fartsy honeys up in there, huh?”

“It wasn’t even on my mind,” I said. And that was no lie. “Actually, I got hooked up with this one girl in class, she’s pretty hot.”

“I don’t believe that shit,” Jacky shot. “Really?” Joe added, right about the same time. “Joe, man, he’s just sayin’ that shit to impress his friends! Ar-hargh-har-ar! You can’t talk to these snotty-ass hoes up here, ‘cause all they want is either some fuckin’ pimp or a white dude—either which, they certainly don’t want you, Nate!”

“That’s not true, I knew this girl from Numidia, from way back,” I explained. “Her name’s Maya Arschloch.”

“That’s a helluva name,” Jacky said, “sounds like German for asshole! Nate, you sure she’s okay? ‘Cause I’m tellin’ you, I’ve been up here before all y’all. I was in this motherfucker twelve years ago. Back inna goddamn seventies! Man, that was nothing but total sell-out time! Every motherfucker wanted to be a goddamn pimp, a fuckin’ hustler—I mean, it was fucked up! The decade before they were all into that ‘black is beautiful’ shit—then, they just freaked out!”

“Tell me about it,” I snorted, “look what became of them.”

My words were complimented by the sudden appearance of three happy, merry, huckle-bucking students, dressed in loud “COON STATE” T-shirts and cut-off jeans and gold chains, yelling and screaming like lunatics; following right behind them were a group of enormous negroes with their hair shaved to the shape of Greek lettering, making funny noises right out of Monty Python, their feet ensconced in Adidas sneakers, running two and fro from the gateway entrance to the steps of the School of Business in repetitious patterns only seen in the mentally autistic. “Oh, shit,” I snorted, “the goddamn Greeks.”

The three of us continued down Georgia Avenue, until we passed the rows of rotting brownstones and store-front churches, the beer joints and crumbling sidewalks, the stripped-down cars, the post offices and cathedrals with grilled windows….We popped up in Chinatown, still talking. Chinatown looked more or less the same—the main difference being the lettering was Chinese, and that the windows didn’t have grills in them. Right around the corner from us—we were on H Street—I saw this obscenely bloated figure in pink tights and a black T-shirt pushing a baby carriage; I was aghast to see that the bloated thing had the face of Rhonda Randolph. Even more outrageous was the fact that it was smiling! “Damn, that’s a goddamn gorilla right there,” Jacky huffed, with a chuckle…. “That bitch is so fat, she can’t even make it through the fuckin’ door.” He squints his eyes at her face. He sees what Joe sees, what I saw before any of them. They turn and look at me. “Oh, my Lord,” exclaimed Joe…. “Nate??”

“What?” Jacky cracked, his mouth widening into a shitty grin. I bit my lip. “Yes, I know, I know.”

“It’s your girlfriend!” Joe giggled, and then broke out laughing. Jacky wasn’t laughing, however; his eyes said something else. “Hell, I’d fuck her,” he admits, shrugging. Joe laughs even harder, though the shit is really directed at me, as he makes clear when he leans on me when I got my back turned, trying to make sure Orca doesn’t see. “Yeah! I mean—she may be fat, but it’s the good fat, yo! She’s hugely but evenly distributed! Hell, African dudes like their bitches fat, so I guess I’m more in tune to the Motherland than you niggers are! Ar-har-har-argh!”

“Hell,” I snorted, watching that huge rear-end swish disgustingly away, “she IS a motherland all unto herself.”

“You know, it’s really fucked up, how the sisters at Coon State be doggin’ a nigger, yo,” Joe begins, as we make it onto 9th; thank God Orca goes down the escalator of the Gallery Place metro. “I mean….there’s this one bitch I heard about, right. She’s up there now. She’s such a freak. I mean, she’s such a big freak, Vanessa del Rio don’t have nothin’ on her, okay? Light-skinned bitch. She’s got this answering machine, an’ all these niggers kept callin’ her ass up, one after the other. ‘Cause she had this message on it where the girl was actually rubbin’ the phone up against her pussy an’ sayin’ some wild shit, lickin’ the phone an’ stuff. She looks almost white.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jacky says, cutting his eye at me jocosely, “I remember. I think I recall. Melvin told me about that bitch when she used to work overseas! She got those long, sexy dancers’ legs, like a, a ice skater. Yeah, she’s fine! Got that luscious skin, that svelte ass….”

“She’s the one Luc’s in love with,” Joe says, cutting his eye at me. “The stupid-ass fool!” Jacky replies. “She’s like the fuckin’ mirage you see inna desert. That’s all she is! A goddamn flirt! You think you gonna get something but you don’t get shit from her! Goddamn dickteasin’ bitch! She be whippin’ her long dark hair around, flashin’ them sexy cat eyes—she ain’t nothin’ but dirt. She ain’t but nineteen an’ she’s already had five abortions, slept with about a thousand niggers, Melvin told me he’s got this film of her with eight guys shootin’ sperm into her mouth, big ol’ fat juicy gobs, too, not that small shit, you know, these ol’ tiny-ass droplets—I mean, BLISSSSSSSHHHHHH!! Shit looked like she got doused with wall-paper paste….Damn!”

“The nastiest, sluttiest, whore-ass high-yellow bitch of the class of 1992,” Joe said, mordantly. And then he turned and faced me, and said: “Does that sound like somebody you know?”

“Well….”

In my silence the void was filled with raucous laughter, with Joe laying it on thick for effects. No big surprise: his whole face seems like it’s been constructed just for that purpose—to laugh in other people’s faces. “An’ to think he’s been to bed with Orca an’ shit—bitch is so goddamn fat that when a nigger fucks her, the motherfucker sinks right in! Takes him a whole week to find his way out that bitches’ pussy!”

“Man, Nate,” Jacky laughed, “I thought you had some good taste in women.”

“She’s my ex-girlfriend,” I snorted, angrily. Then, for some strange reason, Orca reappears, through the Metro’s elevator. Joe and Jacky are in stitches watching her huge thighs wobble around; I move away from them. They follow, sheepishly giggling. “Okay, man, we got you. FORMER girlfriend.”

“I’m serious!” I furiously whispered, in vain. Jacky nods. “Okay, man. Gotcha.”

“I mean, we don’t even know each other anymore,” I continued.

“Yeah, man, we get the point already!” Joe snorted, still laughing. “Former girlfriend. FORMER GIRLFRIEND. Shit, that’s what they all say.”

They are still laughing when we enter the clothing store further down on 11th Street, North West. I didn’t care to go in to the goddamn place, since I usually picked up something cheap at a flea market. And I know that THIS IS A STICK UP! doesn’t have the kinds of things that I like to wear; their stuff is too hip, too self-conscious. “Look around, man,” Joe says, once we’re into the men’s section, the sounds of Public Enemy pounding over the intercom. “All this,” I snorted, “just to lay these stupid cunts on campus. They won’t give a shit! I’ve been through this whole thing before!”

“Nate,” Joe says, as I pick up a black long-sleeved shirt with red poker-dots, “you may be a veteran of a nasty war, but there are other wars to be fought. Keep your head up, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Joe moves away from me, over towards Jacky, who’s checking out a new pair of Elleese tennis shoes. Yesterday it was Fila; the day before that Gucci; the day after tomorrow it will be Timberlands….and these silly names will be the only reasons why guys like us will die in these streets.  Nearby, two beefy security officers, one a fat black woman, the other a jaunty-looking white guy with a mustache, are watching me discreetly but carefully; a sales representative, dressed smartly and casually in jeans and olive sport coat, Asian with unusually round eyes and slick, trimmed, oily hair, a face full of acne and thick, pink lips, a white name tag reading “DOUG” stuck on his coat, starts hovering over me when I’m looking at a double-breasted suit. The sales rep says, “Need any help?”

“No,” I say, “I’m just fine.”

I put the suit back down on the rack, and then pick up another one, a single-breasted jacket with one button only. “No, that’s not you,” says “Doug” the retailer, who pulls out something strange— “this is. Yeah.”

He holds it up to me as I face the mirror. The thing is triple-breasted, with buttons running up and down the bright blue fabric like black cockroaches. “Now, that’s bumpin’, that’s cool. You a Coon State student?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I figured you were,” he said.

I go into the fitting room and try it on. The pants are too tight, and they haven’t even been cuffed. The shoes are too stiff, too shiny, like they’ve been made out of plastic; besides, I don’t like the combination of red and black. And the jacket is a four button-holed monstrosity. Only a lunatic would pay three hundred and forty dollars for this trash. Of course, I don’t say that to “Doug’s” face when I give it back to him, and simply take the black poker-dotted shirt for twenty dollars.

Joe and Jacky are in the women’s section talking to a coed from Howard University. I am just leaving the cash register, ready to walk out the door when “GREG”, the other sales rep, black and medium-complected, narrow-featured and Latin-looking, calls out, while striding towards me:  “Oh, sir?”

“Yeah?”

“Could you mind putting that shirt back where you found it?”

“You mean this? I just bought it,” I said.

“No,” he says, grinning forcibly, suddenly tugging on the one I’m wearing. “I mean this. Please take that off right this instant and give it back to us.” Very strange how he has suddenly become so rude.

“Oh, no, this is my shirt,” I say, watching his face—it isn’t moved once. “I’ve had this shirt for a year.”

The security’s ears are pricked up: the fat black female one wobbles over, eyes popping, fingers itchy to pull out that pistol she’s got in her black leather holster. “Don’t start that shit with us,” I hear her snarl. I froze: my mind rambled back to Pointe-Blanche, to Adjrar, to Camp Jejune, to Freedom College, and all the past humiliations I had ever suffered at the hands of authority figures.  “Take it off.”

“But this shirt is mine!” I exclaimed, and then wheeled to Jacky and Joe, who were still in the women’s section, still talking to the Howard U. coed. I tried to wave them over—but, lo and behold, I found them acting like they didn’t know me. Neither one of them said a goddamn word when I asked them had they seen me with my shirt on. The female security officer tugged on the sleeve of my shirt…. “I’m sorry, boy,” she barked, while the other one came closer, chewing gum, eyes set dead on me, “but you gon’ have to show a receipt if you claim that shirt’s yours!”

“I bought it a year ago,” I said, my breathing starting to speed up apace. “Why would I have it? Those guys over there, they’re my friends, they saw me with this shirt….”

All along, the burly white guy with the moustache kept nodding, chewing, nodding, nodding, chewing, chewing, and then going, “uh, huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, sure it is. Sure, pal. We believe you.”

“Take off that goddamn shirt, nigger!” the fat black bitch rasped.

I started arguing with them, thinking, this is the last straw, I’m not going to take this crap. But everyone else in the store, save for the personnel, was indifferent, even though I observed the cashiers laughing and joking with some customers about the absurd scene. Then the big white guy seizes me roughly by the arm. “C’mon, c’mon, let’s go, kid,” he snorts, hurtling me through the doorway of the room reserved for “employees only”.

C’mon, Nate, I thought, wake up. Stop dreaming, you can’t fight the world all your life. Give them the shirt, and walk out of the building, back to campus, back to school, and get your degree. Maybe they will let you off easy. You know they are right after all—even if they are wrong. What are you going to do about it, motherfucker?

The door closes on a room filled with unopened boxes, scattered tables full of invoice papers, trash cans filled with discarded Dixie cups and soda cans and potato chip bags and empty boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a water cooler, a soda machine, and two bright, dangling bare bulbs. They say, after they lock the door, “Take your pants down.” I refused to take them down. So the two guards held me as “Doug” reached for my pants. I smashed my knee up in his face and the two guards wrestled me to the ground; I punched the honky in his face with my left but the black bitch quickly pointed her gun between my eyes. Then “Doug” ripped my pants off, zipper and all. “Greg” filched out my wallet; the honky took the wallet, went directly for the ID’s, pulling each and every card out, VISA, Master Card, etc., etc. “Is your name Nathan James Morris, or is this some shit you made up?” he spits. “Yes,” I say, “it’s my real name.” “Well, is it!?!” “YES,” I shot back, observing “Greg” put on rubber gloves, and “Doug” filching my remaining cash out of my wallet and sniggering. “Fuckin’ sonofabitch,” “Greg” giggles, while he sticks his hand up my ass and starts probing around in my asshole for what he thinks he can find….Unfortunately, by the time the cops come, it’s all over, the damage has been done, my pants have been buttoned back up. Five police officers stream in through the door and, without a word, point their finger outside, towards the waiting patrol car. I stroll through the doorframe feeling one of the security officers kicking my sore ass. Joe and Jacky have long since left. People stop and stare at me; the old Korean owner of a nearby hat shop puts down his broom and, his wife coming out, starts pointing, jabbering stuff in Korean; both their slit eyes carefully follow my clumsy steps from the STICK UP!’s doorway to the patrol car. The mastiff in back of me keeps barking down my ear, giving me a head-splitting headache by the time we get to the precinct station.

The precinct is an olive-green walled hell-hole alive with the endless ringing of greasy telephones, the ruffling of papers, and swarms of dick-headed cops of every race(though mostly black men)and their equally repulsive victims: hookers, drunks, armed robbers, gang-bangers, pushers, etc. By now, after a year in this goddamn city, it comes as no surprise to me that nearly all of them are young black men. The man behind the desk, a patrician-looking fatherly guy with gray speckling his neatly combed kinky hair, keeps asking me a whole bunch of insulting questions, one after the other. My only line of defense, unfortunately, is to tell the truth. “Uh, huh,” he merely snaps, after everything I tell him. I give him Joe Washington and Jacky Cooke as witnesses, provide their phone numbers and campus addresses—all of which comes in the end to nothing. They take me into the booking room for “attempted petty theft”. They flung a sign around my neck, snapped some horrible pictures of me, had me roughly fingerprinted, then led down dark, stale corridors to—the Drunk Tank.

Why the hell were they arresting me for public drunkenness?

I go inside the place, and there are about fifteen mothers in there, all black, and all male. Eight of them are huge brutes, eyeing me very, very carefully as I’m shoved inside. The other six are non-descript-looking, dirty fellows clad in dirty jeans, torn overcoats, soiled pants, some wearing only underwear; one guy masturbates in a lone corner while talking loudly to himself. The whole place smells of piss and rotten blood. The fifteenth guy stood out above all, because he was dressed in drag. He had on a shiny black wig with black fishnet stockings, red plastic earrings, a tight pink mini-skirt obviously padded around the hips, breasts and ass to give him the semblance of woman ness. Had not this figure stunk so bad of alcohol and unwashed ass, I would have never guessed—though the prickle of beard should have told me so. And, above all, the eyes: they were too green, with that coldness that one sees only in snakes.

“Hey, man,” he says, when he sees me, “what’s happening? Whad’chu do to get in here?”

After my shock wore off, I only said, “whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what YOU were doing!”

“Man, it was just a ruse,” Guy insisted, stumbling around drunkenly, “it’s not like I was selling myself.” He then began a spiel about how he worked with some other guy in a fake prostitution scheme: Guy, dressed up like a woman, would lure suckers into a trap in a dark alley, pull open their pants, go through the motions….when the other guy, unbeknownst to the sucker, would bash him in the head. It sounded very believable, but I couldn’t be so sure after noting that the front of Guy’s dress was encrusted with flecks of what looked like dried wallpaper paste. Myself, I said nothing, wanting to believe it was all a bad dream.

“You got twenty dollars, man?”

“No, I—the security officers took my money,” I stuttered.

“Where was this at?”

“THIS IS A STICK UP!, you know, that place,” I said. Guy laughed. “Man, I don’t believe that shit,” he snorted.

Hell, I thought, I don’t believe you, either. What the hell happened to all your money?

Late that night I managed to place a call directly to my dormitory at Hillcrest Heights. But it was four days before Lucius followed up on his promise to get me out. Guy, on the other hand, stayed behind. I watched the look of despair on his face as I left the Drunk Tank, thinking to myself, it’s the fitting end for a stinker.

The New Absurdism: the emergence of an American literary sensibility (or, don’t conceal the real)

Absurdism is not the cheap toilet-paper irony of white school children who have just learned to masturbate. Absurdism is rooted in a blues sensibility and a blues aesthetic. Once again, it must be made perfectly clear just what we mean when we define a “blues aesthetic” in neo-modernism and absurdism. It is not merely “singing the blues,” let alone wearing Ray-Ban sunshades and pork-pie hats and playing bad imitations of Son House. The “blues aesthetic,” for us, is rooted in an acknowledgement of our historical and contemporary struggles to stay afloat in a hostile universe. Fiction, like the Blues, is a vehicle by which we give expression to our anger, our sense of confusion and outrage; it is a vehicle by which we keep alive the “jagged edges” of the experience and by which, we transcend that experience, at least through art. To quote Elif Batuman in “Get A Real Degree,” her rebuttal of Mark McGurl’s defense of “program writing”:

At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way – the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbour – revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money…. To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed. (Italics mine)

As with us, the American and/or modern novel, if it is to exist, must become Black. Our fiction requires distillation, rejection of the academic aesthetic and creation of and/or appropriation of older techniques and aesthetics in expressing what is real to us: we, the so-called “marginalized,” whose thousands of deaths each year barely get an inch of space on some off-beat web-blog. It should be understood that the academies of the West, or even the non-West, are not going to take us seriously; they have trained themselves not to take us seriously, except when we function in the capacities they have created for us. And these capacities, of course, have nothing whatever to do with so-called “high” art.

We writers need to assess for ourselves what constitutes “high” art. How any form of art became “high” in the first place is cause for careful examination. Students of Dante Alighieri often forget that the Divine Comedy was written in what was considered a “low” language of 13th century Florence: Italian. Before Pushkin Russian literature, as a rule, did not exist; the Russian elite wrote and spoke in French. Russian was considered a “rude” language.

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The African American is in more of a disadvantageous position than he or she realizes. The main disadvantage has less to do with the sorry state of the American publishing industry and more to do with actual matters of craft–or, to be more specific, matters of language. Each black American writer (providing he is serious, and not a hack) has to reinvent the American literary language in his or her own way. He must virtually reinvent the Black vernacular by reclaiming it, by taking it out of the hands of rednecks and clueless minstrel rappers. This is not an easy task. Much of the so-called Black vernacular defines African-Americans in ways that are just as trite, just as stale and stereotyped, as that of the dominant American vocabulary. (Which is tantamount to saying that no true Afro-American language really exists!!) Furthermore, the Vernacular itself often comes off as sounding really hackneyed–the whole “whassup, nigga” thing is more than just played out. Enough should be enough: it’s time to step outside of the narrow confines of the American and Afro-American vocabularies and at last give a true account of what it means to be black and American in the world today.

The African or Arab writer, by contrast, has it easier: armed with his or her own language, he or she is already in an advantaged position over the poor native black writer: the Ghanaian-American or Nigerian-American–unlike the native black–already speaks a language that does not define him as a nigger. This is not to say that African or Arab writers don’t have their own hurdles to jump over. The Nigerian novelist, by and large, writes in English, not in Edo, Yoruba or Hausa, nor in any of the dozens of languages of Nigeria. The “Arab” writer, who in reality is an Egyptian, a Yemeni or a Moroccan, writes in a language that virtually no Arab speaks anywhere in the world. This is tantamount to saying that Egyptian literature, for example, doesn’t really exist…

African-American literature doesn’t really exist, either: when Amiri Baraka proclaimed “Negro Literature” to be a “myth” he was not necessarily hyperbolic. There are a few examples but by and large, African American literature has been deformed by the expectations and demands of American publishing editors, almost exclusively white, who think they know what “black” writing is supposed to be like. “Black” literature has been largely tailored to the expectations of a reading public that wishes to see what it wants to see of Black America, and the end result is that there is a distinct unreality about most Black writing, as it is for Latino, Asian and Native American writing. (For white writers, the problem is virtually the same, save that ethnicity and race are more or less out of the question. There is a 180-degree difference between Raymond Carver in book form and Raymond Carver on manuscript. “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was not written by Carver; it was written by Gordon Lish. Carver merely handed in the manuscript.)*

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Today, in place of Absurdism, we have polite writers (largely white and upper-middle-class) who–to be concise–are in the business of concealing more about life on this planet than revealing it. To genuinely reveal anything in literature one must be willing to face reality: our inner reality, our true feelings and passions as well as the sorry state of the world outside of ourselves, outside of our neighborhoods, outside of our cities. Reality is often unpleasant and unnerving; it all to often provokes feelings which make us, in some form or another, extremely uncomfortable. Contemporary Anglo-American literature functions in much the same way as cutesy-poo cat designs on the panties of Japanese schoolgirls: cheap kitsch to conceal the real.

American literature does not exist. Maybe it had existed in the past, but it does not now. In order for American literature to exist the point-of-view must change; the cultural referents must be considerably broadened to take in the Asian as well as the African, the Latino as well as the Native American, the Jewish as well as the Arab, and so on and so forth. Meaning that from now on the American writer, if he or she is to be a writer, must have a lot more on the ball than before. No more of that cozy provincialism of the past decades, slumming in one’s own ethnic ghetto writing only of Puerto Ricans or Jamaicans or Italians or Jews or Jordanians. And no more of that phony inclusion, writing of Puerto Ricans, or African Americans, or Jews, or Irish, or Armenians, as mere gaudy novelistic decoration to make the book “colorful.” A thorough grounding in the concerns and problems of each group is necessary before any real American literature is to be written, and as always, the viewpoint must be that of an outsider, one who has rejected the national fantasies.

*I will make more personal observations on Raymond Carver later.