Two Cities Essay - Critical Essays

John Edgar Wideman

Two Cities

The subtitle of John Edgar Wideman’s novel, TWO CITIES, “a love story,” creates expectations of romance, but instead readers are thrown into a world of violence, death, and loneliness. Kassima has experienced more loss in her thirty-five years than most people experience in their whole lives. Her husband has died of AIDS; her two sons have been killed by deadly gang violence. Robert Jones confronts the daily threat of violence as he lives his life as normally as one can amongst gangbangers’ turf wars. At age fifty, Robert and his generation can only watch and hold back their anger and despair as young men absurdly kill themselves and others. Old Mr. Mallory, having witnessed death in a world war and the street wars of America’s cities, awaits his own end. Love among such ruins—the ruins of neighborhoods, of families, of lives—saves a young woman from despair, a middle-aged man from loneliness, and an old man from meaninglessness.

Wideman’s novel is also a story of two cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, run over and run down by violence. In Philadelphia, police attack the barricaded MOVE compound, killing eleven men, women, and children. OD’s diner becomes a site of burglary and murder. In Pittsburgh, red- and blue-clad boys in oversized parkas carrying oversized guns tear a world apart. In these two cities, death has become a fact of life. However, when Wideman speaks of two cities, he is not simply referring to geographic locations; he treats death and life as two concomitant modes of existence often indistinguishable one from the other. In Wideman’s world, life is shaped by death, by the images of death, and by its constant threat. Memories of times past and people who have died live in those who remain. As the characters in the novel learn, however, they find the strength to live and die through the power of love.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, July, 1998, p. 1832.

Essence. XXIX, November, 1998, p. 98.

Library Journal. CXXIII, October 15, 1998, p. 102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1998, p. 11.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, October 4, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 3, 1998, p. 72.

Time. CLII, October 5, 1998, p. 88.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, October 4, 1998, p. 5.