James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), is a kick in the teeth. As I wrote in my one-sentence review for Goodreads, Baldwin always brings the fire, and the love. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that more clearly and directly, though, in any Baldwin work I’ve read to date, except perhaps some of his essays (and interviews.) In his fiction, like Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s messages are always clear and profound, treated with deep skill and attention, but there’s also something subtle beneath the surface, a storm brewing and waiting to be unleashed. In If Beale Street Could Talk, that storm breaks open.
Unfortunately, the plot of Beale Street revolves around the injustice faced by young Black men in America, a tale that is both as old as our history and as disturbingly relevant today as it was in the 1970s. Baldwin’s fire and urgency, then, fall just as hard upon reading as they would have fifty years ago. What’s most impressive to me, though, is how brutally honest his characters are in addressing the truth of their (and our) situation, and in refusing to skirt around or whisper through the issue. Racism in America, racism in its justice system, is confronted head-on by characters experiencing it. One wonders what audience Baldwin had in mind for this one, though it’s clear who needs to read it, despite what the reactions by many will be.
As always, I felt immense joy and admiration while reading this one, as I always do when reading Baldwin, despite the heavy subject matter and the less-than-happy-ending (another Baldwin trait.) Baldwin is such a master of prose, a romantic technician who weaves wonders with the English language. He, also, is I think a reluctant optimist, so that even when all seems on the surface hopeless, when the characters, the narrator, the writer, the reader are all furious, resentful, hopeless, enraged, Baldwin holds us all together with love. In this way, he reminds me of Vonnegut and Twain, two realists who often come across as pessimists, but who, really, love people too much to ever stop trying.
Tish and Fonny, and their families, are recognizable on so many levels. Their experiences are recognizable. The city is recognizable. All of this is a triumph for the novel, and an indictment of us all.