In 1920s, a group of expatriate black seamen, most of them American, are living in the Vieux Port section of Marseilles. Often searching for work or unemployed, they sometimes travel to other locations in the South of France. Much of their time is spent enjoying “the joy stuff of life”—music, romance, and sex—in or around the city’s bars, restaurants, and clubs. Banjo is the nickname of Lincoln Agrippa Daily, who has a band, which the philosophically inclined Ray, newly arrived from Harlem, joins. Other members who converge in the city include Malty, Ginger, Dengel, and Bugsy. The loosely plotted novel includes their individual stories as well as the backdrop of the changing racial composition of the port and, particularly, of the ships’ crews, which are changing to predominantly white. The Americans also detect anti-foreign sentiment.
Leaving Marseilles, Banjo heads for Monte Carlo, while Ray and Malty go to the wine country, and still others go north to work in a factory. Although Ginger and Dengel stay, hoping to work from the docks, the “spell” they felt has been broken. The others return changed, especially Banjo, whose instrument has been stolen and whose disposition has turned melancholy. Illness, police persecution, and even Bugsy’s death plague their group. Banjo decides to crew on a ship headed for the Caribbean, but at the last minute, he skips out, apparently committed to pursuing his music while traveling around France.
Banjo is subtitled “A Story Without a Plot,” but it is not a novel in the manner of Virginia Woolf—although it is conversational and at times even dialectical. Rather, it is an episodic narrative involving a small group of relatively permanent residents of the Vieux Port section of Marseilles and a larger cast of incidental characters who are encountered briefly in the varied but fundamentally routine activities of unemployed black seamen trying to maintain a sense of camaraderie and well-being. It is, therefore, basically a picaresque fiction that offers a measure of social criticism (sometimes at considerable length, at other times with considerable force); this social message, however, is extraneous to the novel and is a structural weakness.
Except for occasional excursions to Aix-en-Provence and other nearby locations in the Midi for seasonal employment or diversion, the characters spend their time frequenting the bars, nightclubs, and restaurants of the Ditch, Boody Lane, and Bum Square—names that they have given to the Quartier Réservé, rue de la Bouterie, and Place Victor Gelu in Marseilles.
Some chapters introduce Arabs, Orientals, and Europeans, who are shown less favorably than the motley assortment of blacks who constitute McKay’s principal concern; other chapters present hospitals, rooming-houses, bordellos, gambling rooms, and pornographic movie houses. Both people and places sample the exotic as well as the erotic, and Marseilles becomes an overseas replica of the New York City of Home to Harlem (1928).
The book is divided into three sections. The first introduces Lincoln Agrippa Daily (Banjo), strolling along the breakwater and encountering Malty, Ginger, Dengel, and Bugsy, who have arrived in the boxcars of a train. All are seeking “the joy stuff of life” and believe that they can find it by playing as a black band in the cafés and “love spots.” In the second part, Ray (who has left Harlem to become a seaman) appears and joins Banjo’s little group, becoming a somewhat sobering influence through his incessant philosophizing, though participating in the life of the Monkey Bar, the Anglo-American Bar, and similar establishments. Yet times are changing: White crews are replacing black ones on ships, and work is scarce; foreigners are being subjected to irritations. The beachboys are broke and scatter: Banjo accompanies a group of Europeans to Nice and Monte Carlo; Ray and Malty (in company with Latnah) go to the vineyards; Goosey and Bugsy are sent by a...
(The entire section is 1,059 words.)