Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My amputations


By Clarence Major.Fiction Collective. 205 pp. $15.95.

Then later he told me to open my briefcaseand read what was inside and I did, finding an official envelope stamped with the state seal. . . . "Read it,' my grandfather said. "Out loud!'

"To Whom It May Concern,' Iintoned. "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.'

--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

At the end of this review, I willdo the unforgivable and reveal the punch line of Clarence Major's new novel, since that may be the only way to convince you to read the book. Mere description cannot convey the wild humor and audacity to be found here, nor the anxiety and cunning. The virtues of My Amputations are all active ones, best summarized, perhaps, as jumpiness. Only a demonstration of them will do.

Major--the author of Reflex andBone Structure and Emergency Exit-- has produced as his fifth novel a fantasy of the black writer as con artist, kept on the run over three continents. Part travelogue and part imaginary self-portrait, the book begins with its protagonist huddled in a closet in New York and ends with him in a hut in Liberia, having by that point met the Devil and worse. He has, in fact, met himself. Mason Ellis, the character on the run, is a half-mad ex-convict who imagines himself to be, of all people, Clarence Major--or perhaps Clarence Major, huddling in the closet, fears he's really Mason Ellis.

"The background of such a madmanis at least of clinical interest. I strain to find something good to say.' Thus the narrator, early in the novel, about Mason. Raised in South Chicago by a stepfather who's the Man of Rules and a mother who's the Woman of Blues, Mason does a tour in the Air Force, reads everything he can lay his hands on and, after his discharge, makes the mistake of going home:

The South Side was a madhouse ofstumbling losers two-timing playgirls doublecrossing husbands failures and sneaky wives in search of a break in the flux; Muslims, junkies, devout simpleminded fire-and-brimstone-church-going handclapping holy folk. Judgment Day was only theatre: this was another cantaloupe.

In the space of three pages, Masonfathers nine children with two women and then lights out for New York, where the police pick him up on the Lower East Side for looking wrong. The charge stricks, and Mason does his next tour of reading in Attica. There, he becomes convinced that he is not merely the reader but the author of certain books, and that an imposter has stolen his identity and his $50,000-a-year grant from the Magnan-Rockford Foundation. "Hadn't the other winners been announced in the news on TV in the rec room at Attica? Robert Penn Warren, Donald Barthelme, novelist Charles Wright, and another name Mason couldn't remember. Sorta like that old TV show called The Millionaire.'

Released from jail, Mason sets outto collect. With the help of a private eye--who turns into the Claire Quilty of the book--he tracks down the Impostor, who is living on the Lower East Side under the assumed name of Clarence McKay. (The choice of name, the detective comments, "may have stemmed from a quaint respect for a forgotten Jamaican writer, Claude McKay, who thought of himself as international.') Soon Mason has kidnapped CM and is holding him in a closet on West 72d Street.

It is not enough for Mason to captureCM. He must also claim, or perhaps reclaim, his identity. For that, he needs money. In the company of petty crooks, Mason undertakes a series of crimes that might well have been planned by Laurel and Hardy. The narrator, it seems, takes a malicious pleasure in subjecting Mason Ellis to slapstick; perhaps this is the only revenge CM can exact for being represented by such a low-down ME. Mason is just capable enough to buy a fake passport from the Mob. With that in hand, he diverts $50,000 from the Magnan-Rockford Foundation, signs up with a speakers' bureau and sets off on a lecture tour.

Perhaps the summary I've given sofar seems crammed with incident. Forget it. That was merely the setup--an artful setup, granted, but ultimately just so much machinery. My Amputations begins in earnest when Mason hits the road, and the riddle of his identity becomes secondary to the puzzle of what the hell is going on in the world.

At his first lecture, at the Universityof Maryland, the students have a limited repertoire of questions: "Did you write a book called Native Son?' "No? How about Invisible Man?' "Are you the author of Miss Jane Pittman?' "If you're so terrific how come I never heard of you?' "Do you know Toni Morrison?' At Brooklyn College, a student takes him to bed, then calls him an impostor: "I know because I fucked the real dude once: his cock is bigger.' In Seattle, his host from the English department turns out to be ex-C.I.A., while the two junior faculty members who drive Mason around confess they tried to read one of his novels but got confused. Mason leaves for Europe.

France: He undergoes the guilt-removingtreatments of an African physician, Dr. Wongo. England: He's booked at a Punk Rock Poetry Festival--"Punk Rock with added Black attraction: like Miles at rock concerts in the sixties?' The next day he speaks at Brixton College "to a group of scorcheyed West Indians Africans Anglos East Indians Palestinians. Shy and untrusting, these kids were not impressed by the author's so-called "lack of anger.'' West Germany: Mason dodges terrorist attacks, which seem to occur on every other page, and spends his quieter moments at bars with names like Sloe Gin and Sin. It dawns on him that he isn't going to assemble his identity this way. The most important piece of the puzzle, he decides, must be in Africa--and he can pick up the rest along the way, in Italy and Greece.

But what kind of puzzle is it? InFlorence, "He looked into the facade of the city: workers in stone had made it a towering monument to something he reluctantly understood. Well, even he was beginning to realize the real subject of his story wasn't this damned quest he'd thought he was on.' He goes to the Uffizi, kneels on the street before Dante's house, spends hours at the Medici Chapel. In Athens, he appeals to the sculptures in the National Museum. They, too, give no help. It seems that Mason, like poor Claude McKay, has aspirations to the universal. He even visits spots such as the

secret cave of an ancient monk calledHecrate, Knower of All Truth. Legend had it he'd left (in some form other than writing) a "text' which addressed itself to the problems of the soul's relationship to the body and the body's to the group of other bodies beyond itself. Mason was not getting his hopes up but he was damned sure interested.

These esoteric experiments fail as well.He locates oracles, all right, but they tell him things such as, "Father Divine is the supplier and satisfier of every good desire.' It later turns out they have been restored by the Magnan-Rockford Foundation.

Magnan-Rockford, like the shadowydetective, keeps turning up in unsettling places. Mason knows he is being followed, but how is he being used? "He refused to believe himself a Pynchon yoyo or an Ellison dancing Sambo paper doll.' Yet, before he leaves for the ultimate destination, Africa, he accepts a commission from the head of the speakers' bureau--quite possibly a Magnan-Rockford front. The man gives Mason a sealed envelope addressed to Chief Q. Tee, who can be found near Monrovia. His instructions are to deliver the envelope unopened.

Before Mason goes to his fate, let meask: Just how universal is he? The question seems appropriate for two reasons. First, the earlier parts of the book, with their recollections of Mason's youth, have an urgency that's missing from the rest of the novel. Much of the later travelogue is entertaining, even brilliant; but its emotional life is on loan from the first sections, the ones that are not universal but personal, right down to the street addresses. Second, the novel is supersaturated with names, allusions, quotations. Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison--these are some of the more obvious and specific progenitors of the text. Some of the more unexpected are Gertrude Stein (who supplies the epigraph), William Carlos Williams, Daniel Defoe, Herman Melville and (I swear it) Joyce Kilmer. When a writer loads a book with so many references, the reader is entitled to ask whether he knows what he's doing.

Believe me, Clarence Major knows.He has fashioned a novel that is simultaneously a deception and one great, roaring self-revelation. It has the accent of a black American--of precisely one black American, in fact--but its tone should be recognizable to anybody who's ever gotten nervous looking in the mirror. Mason is not the first character to venture into the world playing a role, only to be mistaken for someone playing still other roles. Nor is he the first to try to go home, wearing a mask as self-protection. It is interesting, though, that in his case the mask is a real one, of carved wood, and the home is a hut outside Monrovia.

He has sought first money and fame,then wholeness, then wisdom, and as a result everything that could be amputated from him has been lopped off. Now he has come to the end of his world. Though he should know better, he tamely produces the Magnan-Rockford letter for Chief Q. Tee. He is about to receive the punch line; read it, if you need further demonstration.

"The old man spoke: "The envelope,please.' Mason pulled it from his pocket and handed it over. The old man ripped it open and read aloud: "Keep this nigger!''

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