My rating: 3 of 5 stars
this review refers to the audiobook version.
what a trippy novel… the story of a mixed-race grifter who, his entire young life, bounced between the heritage of his black mother and white father.
as a novel this work has issues–an overabundance of infodumps, contrived dialogue, polemic-quality diatribes. but it has some hard, core truths and some unpalatable realities to convey, and those it does with quality.
our young hero (anti-hero) is Johnny O’Brien (aka White Folks), a mixed-race boy growing up with his black mother (white father having disappeared). Johnny has the odd advantage of appearing to be white–pale skin, blond hair, blue eyes. while his mother works a series of ladder-descending jobs, Johnny tries to come to terms with his heritage and the razor’s edge upon which he balances.
to me, the best parts of this novel are his struggles with race–a boy who is neither black (in appearance) nor white (in upbringing). his economic fences are drawn by his mother’s race, but when he hides his black mother, he can pass on the white side and so all is available to him. to which side does he owe his fealty–the black mother who bore him, or the white society which promises him so much more opportunity?
this book was first published in 1969, when racial divisions were (perhaps) much more sharply drawn. i think now those divisions are just as sharp, only more subtle. there’s a lot, even in this novel’s polemic moments, that resonate just as clearly. the dinner at which Johnny (passing as white) listens to a pair of conservative and liberal racists talk about the “black problem” still contains some truth, and is chilling.
the upshot is this: i’m a white woman, and have never experienced the racism that a black person must feel. but in this novel, i can, despite the span of years, see the contemporary version of its effects. Johnny’s story isn’t so much the same, now and then, as it is different but of the same stripe–the racism that underpins his life has not gone away, only changed.
it must be said that the misogyny Johnny exhibits–well, that’s a different story. the misogyny in this story is utterly appalling. and yet this too is a field upon which not so much has changed… while society at large cringes at the notion that a woman is just a collection of fuckable parts, there’s still a subculture in which women are just bitches/hos/thots. Johnny’s attitude toward women is sooooo 1969… or perhaps 1669, and it’s pretty effing hard to listen to.
still, it’s terribly weird, the experience of this novel–to see how much has changed since it was written, and how much is still 100% relevant, and which parts those are. 1969 seems so long ago… and yet…
and yet. the more things change, the more they stay the same.