(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Messenger is the autobiographical first-person narrative of Charlie, a lonely man. The novel is episodic. Each of its forty short, loosely connected chapters recalls an incident from Charlie’s past or describes in graphic detail his current situation as a promising writer who makes a meager living as a messenger for Wall Street brokers. In a style that is at times spare and reportorial, and at other times highly lyrical and expressionistic, Charles Wright portrays this young man’s slide toward an increasing sense of hopelessness and despair in the segregated borough of Manhattan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. “I grow old in the terrible heart of America,” Charlie writes. “I am dying the American-money death.”

A number of chapters are devoted to memories of Charlie’s childhood in Sedalia, a small Missouri town where he was cared for, primarily, by his maternal grandmother. Other chapters are devoted to memories of his quest for greater experiences in the big cities of the Midwest and California, and to memories of his visit to his hometown in 1958, the year his maternal grandmother died. The majority of the novel, however, is devoted to Charlie’s descriptions of his travels through the underbelly of Manhattan, where he encounters gay men, drug addicts, transvestites, prostitutes, and con artists.

Many of the New York City chapters present accounts of Charlie’s often-humiliating experiences of cruising bars and Wall Street offices trying to find his own sexual pleasure with men or women, or to offer sex in exchange for money to supplement his meager income. His day job as a messenger allows him entrance into worlds from which his skin color might otherwise exclude him. His “tricks” include a wealthy white woman who takes Charlie back to her home in Long Island, a male Wall...

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The Messenger Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. In chapter 8, “The Contemporary Afro-American Novel,” Bell places Wright among writers of “fabulation and satire,” in that Wright draws on his sense of the ironies and absurdity of the 1960’s and 1970’s in order to spread his tragicomic vision of the times.

Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Byerman places Wright within the generation of Ishmael Reed and the early Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) as a leading experimental writer who has redefined what is possible in African American fiction by tending to emphasize the telling more than the tale.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975. This collection of essays by an important spokesman for avant-garde American writing argues in a chapter devoted to Wright that Wright is important in the tradition of the African American novel for creating a radical new form and for shattering old conventions of the “quest” narrative.

O’Brien, John. “Charles Wright.” In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. A 1971 interview that discusses the influence of the southern writer Katherine Anne Porter on Wright’s sensibility, his estranged relationship to New York City, the role of fantasy in his work, and other subjects.

Schulz, Max F. “The Aesthetics of Anxiety” and “The Conformist Heroes of Bruce Jay Friedman and Charles Wright.” In Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties: A Pluralistic Definition of Man and His World. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1973. Part of a larger study that places Wright within the multiethnic 1960’s movement of “black humor” that included writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.