In a world where compliance with corrupt authority is the better part of valor, and where fathers teach their sons the wisdom of deceit, a question of right or wrong is never a simple matter. And when a ten-year-old Negro boy, who has witnessed the accidental slaughter of his neighborhood idol by the police, is called in to testify at a coroner's inquest, he is truly "down to the nitty-gritty." This is not Calhoun mumbling, "Woe is me," or Ole Jim worrying about the missing Huck; [Hog Butcher depicts] the very real dilemma of a young boy who lives in a jungle called Cook County, Illinois.
Wilford Robinson, sickened by the senseless butchery, seeks truth as a weapon of revenge. His reaction to the inevitable pressure, inevitable because the police will not admit the possibility of having killed the wrong man, is so well handled by the author that even the cynical will find the ending plausible. Ronald L. Fair skillfully contrasts the idea of goodness and the image of the neighborhood covered with filth and smothered by frustration.
There are moments of weak dialogue, and far too many clichés, which would limit the book's impact were it not for the overriding power and drama of the boy's moment of truth. Perhaps realizing the difficulty inherent in having Wilford tell his own story, Mr. Fair has chosen to move the plot along by shifting the emphasis to the minor characters. Thus the reader comes to know and...
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Unlike his earlier "Many Thousand Gone" (1965), wherein [Ronald Fair] loosely told of a fictionalized Mississippi community, and "Hog Butcher" (1966), which viewed the effect of a police killing of several blacks, "World of Nothing" is tightly controlled. Its power and immediacy come as much from its landscape as from its prose.
"Jerome," the first of the two novellas [within "World of Nothing,"] is a tale of sin and damnation amid the hypocrisy of modern religion….
The mixture of fantasy and reality, the weaving of a modern counterpoint into an ancient fable are handled with great artfulness. In lesser hands, "Jerome" could have been a disaster. I would class it among the best short novels of the year.
The title novella, "World of Nothing," almost equally impressive, tells of a young black man in Chicago. In its depiction of the aimless existence of the neglected, the desperate struggle of the oppressed, the hot-wire emotions of the hated, it recalls Algren and Farrell….
Where is this world of nothing? Why, if you're black, it's all around you … "a world where the only white face is an occasional policeman or the peddler or the store owner…. But mostly it's all black. It's even black when the sun beats down on our shiny faces; the rays seem to soak into our world and shatter and form a black cloud that hangs like a gloomy continuation of might symbolic of the segregate quarters wherein we eat and laugh and love and cry and live and die."
In this day of self-advertisements and racial nonbooks, truly fine writing seems almost a revolutionary act. In this sense, "World of Nothing" is a revolution in itself.
Shane Stevens, "Two Novellas on Black Themes: Under the Masks, Humanity Prevails," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 23, 1970, p. 28.
In "We Can't Breathe," Ronald Fair has written an unsparing, brilliant, yet unexpectedly warm and touching book. He calls it an autobiographic novel, "a narrative of what it was like for those of us born in the thirties." By "us" he means the children of those blacks who moved up to the north to cities like Chicago "hoping to find the self-respect that had been cut out of them."…
With the children of "We Can't Breathe" we are in … [the atmosphere of] enemy-occupied territory, grubbing for survival and dignity. The brutality is … raw, the talk … coarse.
But that inexplicable sense of heightened awareness is present too. Chicago in the cold and the snow, the uncontrolled excitement of a gang of boys, the slaughter of the rats—we aren't going to be able to forget Mr. Fair's scenes. We may wish we could….
In this book Mr. Fair explains why he writes as he does. A teacher is speaking, the woman who first saw talent in Ernie (alias Ronald?) and fostered it. She is so shocked by what he has written that he wants to tone his writing down.
"You must always tell the whole truth," she says. "If that's the way some of us talk, then that's the way we talk and there's nothing you can do about it except have people talk that way. But you could explain why they talk that way.
"That you could do for our people and for yourself, so that when you become a writer people who read your writing will know that even though your characters talk in a—well, I guess you'd have to say in a nasty way—it's not because they have lost their dignity. That's what you can do; you can write about your people with love."
Pamela Marsh, "Chapters on the American Dream," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1971 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), December 30, 1971, p. 6.
Ronald Fair is one of those American writers who keep producing fine work and getting little recognition. I associate him with writers like Wright Morris, Nelson Algren and Warren Miller, who have enjoyed considerable critical praise but have failed ever to win the profitable attention of the establishment. They occupy that place in American literature most writers would avoid if at all possible: being described as good but minor writers.
Fair is a careful and controlled craftsman. His novels are short, simply and clearly written, and move with speed from one good scene to the next. [We Can't Breathe] … is a moving, cleanly written autobiographical novel about a young black growing up in the slums of Chicago during the thirties and forties.
Fair's Ernie captures the gentle reminiscent tone of a man ambiguously satisfied with the scenes of his past. He amuses us with a gallery of unusual people….
The gang that Ernie leads during his pre-teen years takes part in adventures that remind us of the naughty exuberance of the Dead End Kids—the movie version. They steal from well-stocked, white-owned stores outside their neighborhood. They fight with older neighborhood kids and win….
But the rosy glow of nostalgia is not the dominant tone of We Can't Breathe. Ronald Fair is black, has lived the life he writes about. The creators of the movie-version Dead End Kids were...
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As the title implies, Fair's first novel, Many Thousand Gone: An American Fable (1965), is a metaphorical tale rather than a realistic depiction of life. Set in Jacobsville, Jacobs County, Mississippi, the novel presents a southern microcosm in which the slaves were never freed after the Civil War. Ridiculing the southern practice of rewriting the history of "The War between the States," Fair postulates a situation in which the twentieth century black slaves know nothing of the war, and whites in the surrounding areas do all they can to maintain Jacobs County as a citadel of old southern life…. (p. 477)
Fair also deals harshly with the white world of the North, which has allowed Jacobsville to exist for a century. When a copy of Ebony slips past the post office censors and alerts the black population to the changes in the outside world, several people ask why no one has delivered them from slavery…. (p. 478)
Many Thousand Gone is an effective satire of the modern South and of the weakness of the nation as a whole in dealing with the treatment of southern black people. In hyperbolic terms, Fair points out that many of the same injustices that prevailed before the Civil War are still present one hundred years later; only the external forms have changed. While Fair's use of the fable may stem from his inability to provide realistic details about the modern South, it is a happy choice for the point he wishes to make. However, in his second novel, Fair turned to a deeper exploration of character and the careful documentation associated with naturalism.
Hog Butcher (1966) is the story of a young boy, Wilford Robinson, who sees his hero, Nathaniel (Cornbread) Hamilton, shot to death by two policemen who mistake the innocent teenager for a burglary suspect. Most of the novel deals with the attempts of the Chicago power structure to whitewash the incident…. (p. 479)
Fair's attack on the corruption in Chicago's legal system is more than mere journalism or sociology because of his skillful use of concrete details from Wilford's cramped home life. His success in drawing a thorough, believable picture of the ghetto and its inhabitants suggests that naturalism is still a useful literary technique for dealing with the city and its problems....
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We Can't Breathe is a plangent story of growing up with rats and shattered bottles and lives in the black ghetto of South Chicago.
It is problematical whether We Can't Breathe is elliptical autobiography or obsessive fiction, but its presence seizes, and wrenches, the mind. Fair at first creates a kind of ghetto pastoral, with adumbrations of heroic enterprise…. But it is at bottom a sinister pastoral, sinister heroics. The episode of killing rats can't be converted: spontaneous fear and horror prevail over any youthful ignorance and absorption in the need to play…. There follows the realistic phase, the sudden iron age relieved, unintelligibly and most imperfectly, by such as "Ole...
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If the "Negro is America's metaphor," as Richard Wright has said, then it is valid for us to assume that the Running Man, a recurrent figure in Afro-American literature, is one of the black writer's most effective metaphors, the symbol through which he has been able to express his view of America's agony. In fiction, drama and autobiography Afro-American writers since Ralph Ellison, men like William Kelley, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Ameer Baraka), Douglas Turner Ward, Ronald L. Fair have used running as one method of articulating their conception of the black experience in America. [In Kelley's A Diffrent Drummer, Ward's Day of Absence, and Fair's Many Thousand Gone] the Running Man is the passive...
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Ronald Fair's Rufus develops … [subtly but with impact] from the Book of the Dead. The musical Osiris, deification of life-in-death, lives in the volume's title character….
At first, Rufus's doesn't appear to be a dancin' story. His fatherless birth occurs in a Chicago hospital, in which his mother's chosen name for her child, Reginald, is taken from him by a "colorless nurse" ("who ever heard a nigger / named Reginald?"). At this, his "first injustice," he screams. But he later concedes that the name change "didn't matter," for "he was / out of time / with any name other than / nigger."… Neither wealth, nor his deadening environment, nor lynchings, nor police assassinations deter Rufus...
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