“Who is that nigger?” is the unspoken question that haunts Cato Douglass, the protagonist and narrator of !Click Song, as he seeks to pursue a writing career and live undisturbed with his wife (who happens to be white) and his sons. This question does not merely reflect paranoia (of which Cato has his share); he really does have much to complain about in his treatment as a writer and as a black man.
!Click Song, named after a form of language surviving in African songs and in the conversation of some American blacks as a type of private communication, thoroughly details the struggles of the black American writer. The author of nine novels, John A. Williams clearly knows whereof he writes: the difficulties of getting published, reviewed, sold, read; the burden (familiar to all modern writers) of teaching college to support oneself while writing; the rivalries between writers who are friends; the conflicts between writing and allowing time for loved ones. Some of these problems are resolved more happily than others, yet Cato will not give in or give up, persevering in his writing and in his belief in himself. Others in the world of this novel are not so lucky. One black poet gains fame and acclaim only posthumously, after drinking himself to death. Another brilliant black writer dies a heroin addict, out of despair at not getting published. One black man does manage to succeed in the literary world, but only because he has passed for so long that not even Cato learns that he is black until they have known each other for many years.
The fellow-writer who has been Cato’s closest friend—their friendship dates to their college days after World War II—is a white man, Paul Cummings. The importance which this relationship has had for Cato is clear from the beginning of the novel, when Cato learns of Paul’s suicide. The novel is a long flashback from this event, with occasional returns to the present for Paul’s funeral and for negotiations over Cato’s latest book. Throughout this extended flashback, tracing Cato’s career from the late 1940’s to the present, the relationship between Cato and Paul provides a major motif, even when they are essentially estranged during the last decade of the novel’s action and of Paul’s life.
Cato and Paul build a relationship in which race is irrelevant, an intensely competitive friendship based on their shared desire to write. From their earliest efforts, it is clear that neither will be able simply to accept the other’s successes without considering his own relative success. Although Cato is the first to sell a book, and indeed writes more and better fiction than does his friend (so he tells the reader), Paul outstrips him. He is, after all, white, and as Cato is often reminded at different stages in his career, books by black authors are not popular.
Black writers are caught in a double bind. They are advised to write about the black experience, and yet when they do so, they are then advised that such books do not sell enough copies to justify publishing expenses. Another constant source of frustration to Cato and his circle is the inevitable comparison of a new black writer with canonized black predecessors, rarely with white writers. When Cato’s son Glenn publishes his first novel, he is acclaimed as potentially “another Wright, another Whittington, another Huysmans.” If those last two names are unfamiliar, it is because they are Williams’ own invention. Throughout the novel, Williams blends real names with fictitious ones, although the real-life writers never appear as characters. Williams adds another interesting touch transcending the limits of the text: he gives Cato a rather extraneous sexual encounter with a student at the college where he teaches, and she turns out to be Raffy Joplin, daughter and niece respectively of Ralph and Iris Joplin, the two leading characters of Williams’ third novel, Sissie (1963).
While Cato’s books are ignored, Paul’s are successful, especially after he finally acknowledges his Jewish identity, hidden from even his closest friends under an Anglo-Saxon surname which he felt would be less restrictive than his own, Kaminsky. Cato perceives the irony in the acclaim which greets this revelation, a luxury he will never know because he can never disguise his skin color.
Cato never learns the reason for Paul’s suicide, although it may have been caused in part by Paul’s unhappy relationships. Ironically, Cato’s wife was Jewish, while none of Paul’s three wives were. Even though Cato is sustained by his wife’s warmth and understanding, his frustrations nearly drive him to self-destruction. Various black men in this novel are pitted against one another rather than against a common enemy. Cato and his fellow black writers nurse bitter jealousies and resentments, and he and his heroin-addicted writer friend Ike nearly destroy each other in a bastion of white sophistication.
This scene is truly dramatic, but Ike, like Paul and most of the book’s many other characters, is never fully realized because of the solipsistic limitations of Cato’s first-person narration. Most of the dialogue, with attendant physical gestures, rings true, but many of the characters are mere stereotypes. One of Williams’ representative types, however, does resonate: Amos Bookbinder, a black editor and Cato’s most reliable friend. Although Bookbinder fails to admit that his power is limited or to acknowledge that his company is using him as a token black, he possesses an integrity that Cato only gradually comes to appreciate. The novel’s climax is also its most appalling instance of black pitted against black. When Amos proposes to publish the novel that Cato’s long-time publisher has just rejected, his company agrees—on the condition that he resign his position. When Cato discovers the terrible sacrifice Amos is making for him, he is shattered.
In !Click Song, Williams simply attempts to cover too much ground—the literary profession, racial conflict, family relationships, and the sociopolitical climate in America over some thirty years. Intensely autobiographical, the novel contains far too much undigested raw experience. There are brilliant passages depicting Cato’s sometimes frenzied thought-processes, moving between dream and reality, but there are also frequent digressions on contemporary universities, teachers, and students; general living conditions in the 1970’s; and assorted other matters presented in discussions that seem inappropriate in this context.
Williams’ indictment of the publishing industry and his powerful account of the plight of the black writer deserve a wide audience, yet even here his argument is marred by a curious blind spot: in discussing black writers in !Click Song, he virtually ignores women. The acclaim recently won by black women writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange is surely an encouraging sign. Whatever the role of feminism in their success, it is clear that such writers must be taken into account in any assessment of the current status of the black writer.
Choice. XIX, July/August, 1982, p. 1563.
Library Journal. CVII, February 15, 1982, p. 476.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 9, 1982, p. 10.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 19, 1982, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, February 19, 1982, p. 59.
Saturday Review. IX, April, 1982, p. 60.
Time. CXIX, April 12, 1982, p. 73.
West Coast Review of Books. VIII, May, 1982, p. 23.