Al Young’s concern for language, a concern that embraces both mistrust and love, is clearly evinced in his prose. His second novel, Who Is Angelina?, and his fourth, Ask Me Now, have third-person narrative personae who stand close to their author; they appear hesitant to act freely for want of purpose. Readers of the first and third novels, however, will quickly recognize Young’s ability to render in his first-person narrative personae a vibrant male voice of new adulthood (Snakes) or sagacious middle age (Sitting Pretty).
The author’s background as a professional musician enables him to use music descriptively as well as metaphorically. The music of language also affects Young’s style. Sparingly, he alters standard syntax and diction, sometimes punctuation, in order to set the speech closer to its natural human tone. His objective is not merely to create contemporary dialect but also to create an enduring contemporaneity, to offer rhythmically, as the poet-musician should, the nonverbal meanings that language can carry in its sounds. Young creates this quality of speech through narrative personae who speak softly or stridently, sometimes too literally, yet with voices constant and sincere.
Love, like a curse or a whimper, extends most intensely from the individual to those nearby. The contemporary American social dilemma is thereby represented in Young’s prose just as it appears in his poetry: Each person must somehow maintain the unity, fidelity, and consistency love requires while grappling for the freedom and oneness that American mythology promises. Although Snakes and Sitting Pretty are more successful, all Young’s novels contain graphic portrayals of mainstream urban America—middle-class people who try to be good at being themselves. They emote, they dream, and they reason. At worst, they stand too large on the page; at best, they find purpose to complement the dignity they feel. Whether he narrates with commentary from a third-person point of view, or with the immediacy of first-person sensory experience, Young confronts the problems of individuals growing into their individuality, and the qualities of life central to the congregate American family.
The narrative persona of Young’s first novel, Snakes, is M. C. Moore, who recollects his youth and adolescence in the mature, seasoned voice of the novel’s master of ceremonies. A novel of formation, Snakes is in the bildungsroman tradition and is rendered in a tone of voice at once nostalgic and fatherly. Although he has only snapshots of his true parents by which to remember them, M. C. gradually finds their love implanted in his own initialed name, “so it sound[s] like you had some status,” his first lover explains, “whether you did or not.” For M. C., the process of learning who he is becomes the composition of his own music.
M. C. discovers music in his soul and he makes music the core of his world. He finds music everywhere, “in the streets, in the country, in people’s voices,” and “in the way they lead their lives.” Providing counterpoint, M. C.’s grandmother, Claude, offers guidance and family history, and M. C. is her captive audience: “I could listen to Claude talk all day long, and did, many a time. Her voice was like music.” The association expands as his views of love and music merge, and women ultimately become “lovable fields of musical energy.”
While living with relatives in the South, M. C. learns at the age of ten that music will be his life. His uncle Donald, a “night rambler” with a “talent for getting hold of a dollar,” turns their impoverished household into a “blind pig,” or a Meridian, Mississippi, version of a speakeasy. During his first exposure to the amoral world of adults, M. C. meets Tull, an itinerant jazz pianist who in effect provides the novel’s premise: You’ll get it if you keep at it. Listen, just take your time, one note a time over here with your right hand. Just take your time, that’s all it is to playin’ the piano or anything else. Take your time and work it on out.
The impression lasts; M. C. goes on to structure his life around his love of music and his faith that music will help him grow.
Literature also has a formative effect on him. It is not literature as found in the classroom or in books—M. C. attends high school in body only, and barely earns his diploma—rather, literature personified in Shakes, his closest friend, whose name is short for William Shakespeare. Shakes has a “greedy memory and a razor tongue.” He is bright, musical, and funny: “You hip to Cyrano de Bergerac? Talk about a joker could talk some trash! Cyrano got everybody told! Didn’t nobody be messin with Cyrano, ugly as he was.”
Yet there is more to know about life than its music and its literature; such knowledge appears in the person of Champ, who exposes M. C. to contemporary jazz and the business hemisphere of that musical world. In his bemusing, self-sacrificial way, Champ also demonstrates his worsening drug addiction and the consequential brutalization of his sensibilities. “Poor Champ,” M. C. soon observes while he learns to jam, to feel his music come alive inside himself and issue forth, “who wanted to play an instrument so badly, would stand around working his arms and fingers for hours sometimes, shaping the smoky air in the room into some imaginary saxophone.We all wanted to get good.”
The evil to which Champ submits himself opposes the good that he gives M. C.—music as growth and expression. M. C.’s band, the Masters of Ceremony, discover in their art a meaning that transcends the music they produce, and although the group separates after one demo and some local gigs, M. C.’s early success provides him with a clearer view of the possibilities of his life and a deep sense of wonder. He emerges from his plain, ordinary background complete, communicative, and capable of more, having also achieved his own narrative voice, that husky, now masculine voice the reader has heard maturing since the story’s outset. He boards the New York bus a musician, grown: “I don’t feel freebut I don’t feel trapped.” Awkwardly, painfully, naturally, M. C. has learned to look for the subtle ironies that enrich both life and art. Ready at last for the rest of what he will be, the young adult takes with him his guitar, his music, and precious recordings of his song “Snakes,” which throughout the novel parallels his experience of youth: “The tune sounded simple the first time you heard it, but it wasn’t all that simple to play.”
Who Is Angelina?
While the narrative voice of Snakes provides contrast and consistency—a gradual merging of the maturing young man with his adult consciousness—the narrative voice of Who Is Angelina? accomplishes neither. Angelina is already grown, but her adult life has entered a phase of meaningless triviality. This she blames on the shifting cultural milieu of Berkeley. Life in Berkeley seems different now—dangerous—and the people’s sense of freedom and fun, that community spirit of festivity, is gone. She uses the burglary of her apartment as the justification, and a friend’s convenient cash as the means, to skip town—an act she considers prerequisite to introspection. She flees not only her fictional problems but her reader as well, a character with both brains and beauty who struggles with mere communal ennui is less than sympathetic. Moreover, even the reader who can overlook her escapist behavior needs to know more about her, and most of her background is provided through recollection and reminiscence. The novel’s principal events—travel in Mexico, some romantic sex, an emergency trip home to Detroit, an encounter with a street thief—facilitate reflection by the viewpoint character, and the reader must simply accept her gradual appraisals. Dramatically, little takes place. Most of this novel isexposition; what little action there is consists of Angelina’s consideration of an adaptation to what goes on around her.
The unifying thematic metaphor of Who Is Angelina? is the act of taking away: Angelina is robbed (her reaction is passive), her lover’s mysterious occupation suggests more of the same, her father is robbed and nearly killed, and a friend’s purse is stolen (her reaction this time is spontaneous and violent). Eventually, Angelina’s searching appears to reach some sort of resolution that makes her worthy of new self-esteem. The reader, however, cannot participate in this search but can only observe it, because—unlike the composer-narrator of Snakes—Angelina does not experience within thenarrative a process of growth.
Plainly, Angelina is a woman experiencing a crisis of self-identity during a series of events that propel her toward introspection. What she ultimately discovers within herself is a typical American complex of contradictions, such as the one she describes to a fellow traveler early in her journey, the contradiction Americans create by equating individuality with isolation: Angelina explained that in America it’s the individual who matters most and that she and her family, such as it was, lived at separate ends of what’s called reality. She too was lonely and fed up with a kind of life she’d been leading.
Whether the narrator addresses the reader directly or through the medium of a letter to a former lover, the exposition continues: Everyone nowadays is busy digging for roots. Well, I know them well and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference when it comes to making sense of who I am and why I make the kinds of mistakes I do. In the end, I’ve...
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