Study Guide

Parallel Time

by Brent Staples

Parallel Time Analysis

Parallel Time (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In examining his life, Brent Staples’ PARALLEL TIME depicts a youth mired in the turmoil of family dysfunction and inner-city violence. Staples’ early adulthood was spent pursuing college and graduate school educations in milieus which foregrounded his racial and class differences from the great majority of his associates. While earning a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Chicago, he also became a free-lance journalist and earned a reputation that led to an editorship at THE NEW YORK TIMES. At the same time, however, his younger brother Blake was murdered by a competitor in the drug underworld of Roanoke, Virginia. As a means of exploring the conflicted emotions about his family and his past thrown into sharp relief by Blake’s death, Staples wrote this book.

To prevent the contrast between his and Blake’s life from serving the purposes of a dominant culture eager for evidence of the continuing viability of the American Dream, Staples probes his family’s loss for what it reveals about the worsening menace of racism facing African American youth and the arbitrary interplay of character, historical moment, and random chance shaping and misshaping individual destinies. The eldest son of nine children trapped by their father’s alcoholism and mother’s depression, Brent Staples was determined at a young age to escape his family’s pathology. The ensnarements of friends and siblings by the criminality, early parenthood, and drug usage...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Parallel Time (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Brent Staples’ memoir depicts the emergence of a writer’s imagination against the formidable odds of poverty and familial dysfunction. In his text as in his life, however, he puzzles over the impact of his African American identity on the course of his life. The 1984 murder of his younger brother, a drug hustler, reveals the hopelessness that has replaced the atmosphere of possibility that propelled Staples out of the ghetto in the late 1960’s.

The story dramatizes a gifted son’s intellectual and professional ascent against the background of his family’s steady disintegration. It belongs to a distinctly African American body of autobiographical meditations on the virulent racism belying the national mythology of the American Dream. As with his predecessors, Staples’ effort to write himself into the formal record of American self-making presents the cult of individualism ironically. Grateful for having escaped the death-in-life engulfing many others back home, he nevertheless grieves for those who have been lost, condemns the social and economic assumptions that constrict real opportunity, questions the compromising elements within his own character, and broods over the arbitrary forces behind one person’s triumph and another’s self-destruction. In searching for explanations, Staples explores the paradox of his own continuing alienation: He has ostensibly “made it” but is keenly aware of his estrangement from a white world in which not only his color but also his class background insistently underline his difference.

Staples begins this memoir by evoking a double, an alternative self, in the person of his brother Blake, more than a decade younger. Blake was murdered in 1984, at the age of twenty-two, by a competitor in the drug underworld of Roanoke, Virginia. Blake’s lost future would appear to validate Brent Staples’ youthful determination to flee his community, lured by the mainstream culture’s promises of economic and personal fulfillment. Yet his ambivalence over the emotional cost of abandoning his origins saturates the narrative and makes Staples’ story far more complex than a simple morality tale about the road not taken.

Alienated in his childhood by the disorder rampant in the Staples household, Brent Staples came of age as societal guilt over institutional racism was forcing the system to accommodate some of the most talented among the disfranchised. The eldest son of nine children born to Melvin and Geneva Patterson Staples over the course of a severely troubled marriage, Brent suffered the consequences of his father’s alcoholic irresponsibility as the family, chronically unable to meet its debts, kept moving to tougher and tougher neighborhoods rife with ethnic antagonism. Staples’ hostility toward his father reflected the latter’s emotional neglect of his children and refusal to accord Staples the status of firstborn son. In contrast, his mother emerges as the victim of constant childbearing, relentless poverty, and spousal abuse, circumstances whose impact was worsened by a poetic nature that subjected her to chronic but unacknowl-edged depression. While Staples takes Geneva to task for her ineffectuality and the heavy domestic responsibilities she laid upon him, he also credits her as the person “whose voice made me a writer” and whose kitchen full of devoted and needy friends taught him the power of stories to sustain hope and impose coherence on life’s chaos.

Geneva’s urgings set the boy’s sights on achieving white-collar status as a means of protecting himself from the collapsing industrial economy of Chester, Pennsylvania. Although a lack of motivation kept him in commercial rather than college-preparatory studies, Staples seized a surprise opportunity, given to him by a casual acquaintance, to join Widener College’s pilot outreach program for minorities. Upon graduating cum laude, he secured fellowships to the University of Chicago’s graduate program in psychology.

In nurturing her son’s ambitions, Geneva did not, however, succeed in teaching him the loyalty to family that she held just as dear. Staples concluded from examples such as his father’s that committing himself to the unrelenting demands of family would result in spiritual suicide. He did not find alternative visions of hope elsewhere in the community. His older sister Yvonne’s rebellious break with the family led to self-destructive associations ending in jail, another sister found herself pregnant at fifteen, and an admired pair of young cousins succumbed to random violence and drug addiction. Staples developed a studied numbness to the broken lives he saw all around him. In graduate school, he translated that coping mechanism into the stuff of research. Even his dissertation topic reflected his flight from the subjective: Self-consciously identifying himself as a behavioral scientist, he elected to study “the mathematics...

(The entire section is 2007 words.)