Reed, Ishmael (1999), The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Dalkey Archive Press
Called “a great writer” by none other than James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed’s reputation always had to contend with accusations of misogyny and with the barriers that a career of writing difficult-to-place novels involves. His writing, in all his books, straddled the divide between the experimental and postmodern fiction of Burroughs, Coover and Pynchon, and the strong political convictions and concerns of Ellison, Baldwin and Morrison. Between Coover and Morrison, there never was any real room for a writer like Reed, although his talent, his gift for writing is beyond any doubt. Reed is a black writer who does not cozy up to the expectations of topics or treatment of these same topics. His acidic style eats into both white and black narratives. There are various ways this works out in his work, but in his debut novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, published in 1967, he strikes all these chords, in a simple, almost crude way. He juxtaposes images, caricatures, quotes and screams of pain in one flame-hot bugger of a novel, which is far from flawless, but it is its numerous strengths that keep Reed’s boat afloat here.
And what a boat this is. On finishing the book, you will be both exhilarated and confused. Exhilarated because it’s a grand trip, calling up literary, cultural and political references with a surprising ease, dispatching real-life politicians and writers, as well as the debris of a whole culture in quick, tossed-off surreal snapshots of an inner-city waste land. The book sings, screams and hums with voices, music and noises, and moves from one sketched, unstable location to another. It demands your full attention, and it sets your brain in motion, constantly. This, however, especially the instability of its places and characters, leads to a good deal of confusion. There is nothing that interests Reed less than providing a realistic setting, realistic characters, living an unexamined life chartered by conventions. In his attempts to break free of these shackles, however, he has in his first novel thrown the reader into a largely unstructured sea of signs and symbols without giving him any kind of dry land to stand on.
The Free-Lance Pallbearers is the work of a jittery writer, one who burns with ideas and this book is a kind of explosion of those ideas. The plot is clearly a parody of the established plots of well-received black fiction, like Ellison’s searing Invisible Man, Wright’s Native Son or even some books by Baldwin, and it’s generous with criticism of different kinds of narratives, but it doesn’t offer a counter narrative, which has the effect of setting the reader adrift in Reeds thoughts and obsessions. At the same time, we, the reader, are not allowed to seek dry land outside of the novel, reading it dispassionately, drawing up schemes and lists, foot- and endnoting it all. If we do that, we lose much of the intended impact of the book.
It is meant to confuse the reader, it is meant to confront him with his reading habits, with his easy expectations of what a ‘black novel’ could or should be. It’s confrontational, which we see right at the beginning, in the very first paragraph which gives us an idea of the novel to come:
I live in HARRY SAM. HARRY SAM is something else. A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG. SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness.
These lines are spoken by the novel’s protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, who narrates the whole book until its bitter end. He lives in a country that is named after its fat white dictator Harry Sam, who refers to his own country as “ME”. Harry Sam resides on a toilet, and the state of his bowels, the consistency of his excrement, and the quality of the sewage water below him are constantly debated in the book, they are a matter of political faith, and careers, lives even, depend on the correct replies to the political catechism active in Harry Sam (the country). I never claimed that Reed’s criticism was subtle, it mostly isn’t, especially not with regard to politics. Overt recreations of political actions, debates, “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS”, are among the least subtly satirized targets, but they are also mostly a smoke-screen for the other targets and re-enactments.
Like many writers of his time, Reed seeks to locate the political in the private and expose the workings of the former by scrutinizing the structure and functions of the latter. He does not, however, try to imagine a ‘normal’ household and use the resulting images and situations as a source. Instead he staggers, no, he jumps ahead, and projects parts of everyday life onto the grotesque canvas of politics, showing one within the framework of the other, but both seen very clearly. And vice versa: what, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, remains of regular relationships, is blown up with Reed’s satiric lens and corroded by his political thinking. It is this aspect of his work that has earned him the accusations of misogyny, because his invariably male protagonists find in relationships, especially in marriage, the mark of repression, the yoke of societal control.
The same applies to homosexuality. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed uses homosexuality as a negative trope, it denotes sleaziness, dishonesty, and, like women, is depicted as profoundly threatening to Bukka, Reed’s hapless protagonist. This kind of depiction is not an accident, it doesn’t happen, like so many other things, in passing, no, it’s the culmination of the book’s most powerful, and arguably most important scene in the whole book, Bukka’s confrontation with Harry Sam (the person) himself. This changes the speed and tone of the book, and it is this section that gives the book its shape, that determines what the book is ‘about’. That the negative depiction of (male) homosexuality is a central part of this section seems especially problematic.
However, to read Reed like this is to overlook the use he makes of Bukka, Bukka’s language, and beliefs and what these things say about Bukka’s relationship to his fellow black men, and about The Free-Lance Pallbearers‘ relationship to other novels dealing with ‘the black experience’. Reed purposefully eschews clever writing, or rather: writing that’s clever for the sake of being clever. Reed published this novel the same year that Pynchon published his Crying of Lot 49, which is a nice little tale, but considerably less well realized than all his other books. Interestingly, it’s major flaw, i.e. the bland, and obvious sequence of symbols, of allegories and tropes, is one of Reed’s main objects of ridicule, while at the same time they both make heavy use of some very similar tropes, symbols or images, for example waste, garbage, excrement.
The difference is that in Pynchon, it is a trope, one symbol in a series of them, one allusion of many, whereas Reed, as I just explained, uses it as a direct mirroring of real excrement, real shitting, one of the most private acts of them all, an act that even some married couples hide from each other. All this has an additional metaphorical layer, but it works first and foremost on a direct, almost literal level. His confrontations rely on the brute impact of his caricatures and parodies, not on an intellectual analysis of its symbolic structure. At the end of his book, no dog hangs from meat-hooks, it’s a human being, visited by his parents who demand to given their due. Bukka, as a character, is the only one who doesn’t fit all that; he’s clearly artificial, a literary ghost, a black Candide “cakewalking” through this waste land.
In Bukka, Reed has created a character that is both a reflection of the books, culture and society criticized, as well as the means to criticize them. Just as the book as a whole can be read as a send-up of the traditional black novel, the awakening of a black man to the social and political reality around him, the state he is in and the society that is the reason for this state, so Bukka Doopeyduk is Reed’s send-up of the idealized black protagonist, and of the clever, fashionable black writer at the same time. Parts Candide, parts Malcolm X (including, I think, direct quotes from the Autobiography), Bukka isn’t like Wright’s Bigger, because he is more than that, he’s Wright, so to say, himself. Bukka is the narrator of the book, but his language differs strongly from the language of everyone else in the book and he’s accordingly being made fun of. Bukka is straining to speak ‘proper’ English, full, well-turned sentences, devoid of dialects or sloppiness. He does not, of course, succeed, at least not completely; we notice this partly through a slightly deviant grammar, and partly through orthographical errors.
It is the latter that create the most direct link to the writers made fun of, since these mistakes are often silent ones, mistakes of writing, not of speaking. Bukka the writer is sometimes, fascinatingly, at variance with Bukka the protagonist. While Bukka the writer is in control of everything, since he tells it all, Bukka the protagonist is frequently silenced, even made to mouth speeches that he didn’t write and wouldn’t approve of. Bukka the writer wants to be clever but what he mainly does is suck up to the structure that is currently governed by Harry Sam. It is his distaste that we find in the depiction of homosexuality, of women, even of Bukka Doopeyduk himself. Indeed one could say that Bukka is betrayed by the narrator, in effect by himself. This is an ingenious mirroring of another kind of betrayal in the book, that of Bukka by some of his fellow black men, who have entered into “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS” with Harry Sam (the person) and give up their brother at the drop of a dime.
This is maybe Reed’s most powerful criticism, and his most well made point: how control is not just control of the body with punishment à la Surveillir et Punir, but how it’s also control of one’s own narrative, and how that isn’t a “choice” that we consciously make, but that that’s a narrative that’s written by a different writer, like us, but unlike us (to mangle a line by Wallace Stevens). Bukka is trying to order, to give shape to the life he encounters, but he, like the reader, is swept away by the waves of ideas that Reed blasts at us. There is no life except in a distanced, processed way here, but the tumble and chaos of Harry Sam (the country) could be a better attempt at conveying the exigencies, the contradictions and the cultural problems of that life. In an essay from 1970, Reed once related this joke:
I have a joke I tell friends about a young Black poet who relies upon other people’s systems, and does not use his head. He wears sideburns and has seen every French film in New York. While dining at Schrafft’s he chokes to death on nut-covered ice cream and dies. He approaches the river Styx and pleads with Charon to ferry him across: ‘I don’t care how often you’ve used me as a mythological allusion,’ Charon says. ‘You’re still a nigger – swim!’
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