(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 642 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Traces McKay’s life from his birth in Jamaica through his years in America and England and his journey to Russia as well as his eventual conversion to Catholicism. A chapter is devoted to the period in which he wrote Banjo.

Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism. 3 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Includes an extensive biographical profile of McKay and excerpts from criticism on his works.

Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Giles provides a critical and interpretive study of McKay, with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.

Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Tillery’s biography is a well-documented and fascinating study of McKay’s life. Focuses on McKay’s turbulent life and personality and examines his various associations with black radicalism, socialism, and communism and his ultimate rejection of them for the refuge of the Catholic church.