The Stories of John Edgar Wideman
John Edgar Wideman is an African American novelist and short-story writer of remarkable range and power, as this work fully demonstrates. The Stories of John Edgar Wideman reprints two earlier collections—Damballah (1981) and Fever (1989)—and adds ten stories written especially for this volume and collected in it as “All Stories Are True.” The three collections are published here in reverse order, so that the reader begins with Wideman’s most recent stories and moves back through the two earlier collections. Such a journey reveals both the scope of Wideman’s fictional territory and his considerable talents in exploring it.
The Stories of John Edgar Wideman in some ways resembles a novel, for many of the stories have the same setting (the black Homewood section of Pittsburgh) and characters (relatives and other neighbors in Homewood, both present and in the past). Wideman demonstrates an incredible range of fictional subjects and voices, but his best stories render twentieth century urban black life in vivid detail and history. Reading The Stories of John Edgar Wideman is like a trip through a fictional photo album; many of the shots are of people long gone or forgotten, but the most important pictures are of intimate family and friends.
Unfortunately, the better stories also emerge as the reader moves back through Wideman’s earlier volumes. The ten stories written specifically for “All Stories Are True,” while they display Wideman’s real strengths, fail to engage readers as fully as the stories of the earlier two volumes. Wideman’s scope of subject and style is certainly on full display in this latest volume, from the gothic frights of “Loon Man” through the ten-page sentence which is the content of “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” to a story of American visitors to a violent South Africa in “What He Saw.”
Part of the problem is that the first three stories in this collection are fragments of autobiographical fiction that throw the reader unfamiliar with Wideman’s work into some confusion. In the title story of the section, for example, the narrator is talking to “my mother” on May 10, 1991, on a return trip to Pittsburgh, and he later goes to visit his brother, who has taken a Muslim name, in jail. The uninitiated reader will have some trouble separating the imaginary from the autobiographical, but, as Wideman would probably argue from the title, all the stories are true. What is clear in this first story, however, is how easily Wideman moves between a lyrical poetic language (“Footsteps, voices, a skein of life dragged bead by bead through a soft needle’s eye”) and a street language as graphic and gripping as any fictional language can be. What is also clear in this title story is Wideman’s incredible ability to render place, not just with the geographical coordinates all writers use but with language, myth, and folklore.
Wideman’s best stories do not exist alone, which is perhaps why he is one of the least anthologized major short-story writers in America. “Signs,” for example, is a poignant story of a black college teacher confronting the racism of a mainly white campus. As in many Wideman stories, the main character, in this case Kendra Crawley, draws strength and sustenance from her family, or at least from her memories of them. The story is a kind of apostrophe to the main thrust of Wideman’s subjects, for it takes place outside Homewood and outside the lives that Wideman knows so well.
The best stories in this latest volume, as in his earlier collections, crisscross that Pittsburgh neighborhood. “Backseat,” for example, describes the narrator’s return to the Pittsburgh where he grew up and gives him an excuse to lay out his family history. It is a very autobiographical story that ends, as it started, in the back seat of the Lincoln Continental that rests in the alley behind his grandmother’s house. “Welcome,” likewise, is rich in family life, lived black history, and the tragedies that litter its pages. The older brother of the narrator concludes the story by relating an incident he has just witnessed, of a father and his son waiting for a bus on a bitter-cold Homewood corner.
I see the father lift his son and hug him.… They’ll make it. Or if they don’t somebody else will come along and try. Or somebody else try. To make kids. A home. A life. That’s all...
(The entire section is 1807 words.)