“Who is that nigger?” is the unspoken question that haunts Cato Douglass, the protagonist and narrator of !Click Song, as he seeks to pursue a writing career and live undisturbed with his wife (who happens to be white) and his sons. This question does not merely reflect paranoia (of which Cato has his share); he really does have much to complain about in his treatment as a writer and as a black man.
!Click Song, named after a form of language surviving in African songs and in the conversation of some American blacks as a type of private communication, thoroughly details the struggles of the black American writer. The author of nine novels, John A. Williams clearly knows whereof he writes: the difficulties of getting published, reviewed, sold, read; the burden (familiar to all modern writers) of teaching college to support oneself while writing; the rivalries between writers who are friends; the conflicts between writing and allowing time for loved ones. Some of these problems are resolved more happily than others, yet Cato will not give in or give up, persevering in his writing and in his belief in himself. Others in the world of this novel are not so lucky. One black poet gains fame and acclaim only posthumously, after drinking himself to death. Another brilliant black writer dies a heroin addict, out of despair at not getting published. One black man does manage to succeed in the literary world, but only because he has passed for so long that not even Cato learns that he is black until they have known each other for many years.
The fellow-writer who has been Cato’s closest friend—their friendship dates to their college days after World War II—is a white man, Paul Cummings. The importance which this relationship has had for Cato is clear from the beginning of the novel, when Cato learns of Paul’s suicide. The novel is a long flashback from this event, with occasional returns to the present for Paul’s funeral and for negotiations over Cato’s latest book. Throughout this extended flashback, tracing Cato’s career from the late 1940’s to the present, the relationship between Cato and Paul provides a major motif, even when they are essentially estranged during the last decade of the novel’s action and of Paul’s life.
Cato and Paul build a relationship in which race is irrelevant, an intensely competitive friendship based on their shared desire to write. From their earliest efforts, it is clear that neither will be able simply to accept the other’s successes without considering his own relative success. Although Cato is the first to sell a book, and indeed writes more and better fiction than does his friend (so he tells the reader), Paul outstrips him. He is, after all, white, and as Cato is often reminded at different stages in his career, books by black authors are not...
(The entire section is 1166 words.)