In this complex, layered fiction, John Wideman revisits favorite themes which here assume heightened clarity and resonance. Long a practitioner of modernist textual acrobatics—polyphonic narratives, unmediated disjunctions of time and place, elusive and elliptical voicings often cited by critics as prose variations on jazz improvisations—Wideman also acknowledges postmodernist doubts about the potential of any creative enterprise to relieve the artist’s egotism or conjure up and communicate with its audience. Yet he escapes the postmodern temptation to repudiate claims of artistic “meaning” through the countervailing influence upon him of African American culture, with its insistence upon the life-affirming power of stories and the revitalizing grace accompanying their telling. Wideman regularly incorporates African myth into his narratives as a means of affirming continuity and connection across the ruptures of history, doing so, as he explains in his 1994 memoir Fatheralong, because the “truly dead” are “those who do not speak and are not spoken of, those not connected by vital words, those whom the stories have forgotten, who have forgotten the stories.”
Accordingly, the title of Wideman’s 1996 novel derives from a legend describing how the Xhosa people of South Africa were tragically duped by a prophetic vision instructing them to kill the cattle herds on which their whole civilization rested. They did so, they believed, as a necessary step toward ending their suffering under white European imperialism, but the act proved catastrophic, for the Xhosa unwittingly destroy their community from the inside as an adjunct to the assaults plaguing it from without.
Relating this lesson of the mythic past is no empty exercise in esoterica; it reveals a pattern within lived experience evident anew in the devastated inner cities of the America of the 1990’s, where African American youths shoot each other down day after day like “panicked cattle funneled down the killing chute,” only coming to recognize “too late” that “The cattle are the people. The people are the cattle.” The contemporary writer whose imagination gives birth to all that follows “wanted every word of his new book to be a warning, to be saturated with the image of a devastated landscape. . . . Wasn’t the stench of that ravaged countryside burning his eyes, his nostrils as he turned up Wylie Hill. His book beginning and ending here,” on the brutal streets of Philadelphia where only the night before his arrival for an academic conference two black teenagers lay murdered.
This narrator, named Isaiah, quickly establishes his own anxieties as to the prophetic potential of art and his own credentials for the task. His nickname “Eye” puns not only on the assumed “vision” of the prophet but also on the inescapable danger that such visions may erupt more from the “I” of Ego than from the eye of unfettered sight. By alluding to the Old Testament prophet who kept alive in the Israelites of the Babylonian Captivity a belief that they would one day recover the Promised Land, Wideman blends Judeo-Christian and African frames of reference and recalls the generations of slaves who subversively aligned themselves with God’s chosen people.
The narrative Isaiah has completed reflects his anguished desire to fashion a redemptive art for an era whose relentless brutalities mock the comforts and certainties of faith. He constructs his text achronologically, since “Sometimes . . . going backward in the story is more important than proceeding forward.” These interlocking pieces are offered nightly by a male speaker who hopes to use them, in an intriguing variation upon the task of Scheherezade, to keep a bedridden female listener alive. The tale- teller reveals himself to be an unnamed former slave and former itinerant minister of the late eighteenth century who had been won over by Methodism’s celebration “of the holy spirit dwelling in all God’s creatures.” A religion resting upon love and “cultivating the spark of divinity within any man, high or low” proved especially attractive to one who had been reared a slave and who had found in other churches only an indictment of humanity’s irrevocable depravity.
Choosing to remain outside the reach of official religious institutions, he undertakes that prototypical American act, a purposeful wandering through the sparsely inhabited regions beyond the metropolis, and establishes a worship community of African Americans who seek spiritual renewal. Wideman’s Preacher invites his flock to commune in nature and to recover both their human dignity and their joy in the love of God. The Preacher is set apart among these folks by his own attunement to a wide spectrum of insight into the nature of things, for he is subject to seizures that initially prompt him to deliver a torrent of abusive commentary on the absurdity of the world around him but then give way to an exhilarating moment of insight into the wholeness of creation, “sweet as it must have been, and still is, if we had but eyes to see it, before the Fall.” His utterances following such epiphanies win for him awed respect as God’s chosen messenger—the prophet as visionary poet.
During this time, he also encounters a biracial couple living an industrious life parallel to, but aloof from, the white world of rural colonial Pennsylvania. Immigrants from England seeking freedom from Europe’s constrictive social forms, they quickly discover New World variants on Old World racism and choose to disguise their relationship behind that of mistress and servant. By doing so, they collude with the demeaning system of human valuation they had originally fled and find that as a result they are inexorably yet subtly divided from each other. Liam retreats behind a wall of silence, and his beloved becomes known to the reader only by her duplicitous pseudonym “Mrs. Stubbs.” Liam’s alienation, for years relieved only by the punishing labor of frontier life, begins to give way when the Preacher’s arrival unlocks his tongue and prompts him to share stories he has long withheld. In the presence of another African, Liam’s spirit revives, and he explains that he had come to America dreaming not only of an opportunity for unfettered love but also to unleash the artistic voice he felt nascent within him—an avenue by which, perhaps, to recoup the aborted promise of his early days as the son of an African...