David Bradley Bruce Allen - Essay

Bruce Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Truculence and passion are integral to "The Chaneysville Incident."] Bradley employs a sophisticated past-present structure, built on a sequence of sometimes interlocking flashbacks. The pace is slow, the digressions frequent, and John Washington's professorial sedulousness and hauteur are often grating.

All the material in the book is exposition, really—discovered, then painstakingly communicated: it represents nothing less than a triumph that this basically undramatic material is almost always suspenseful and fascinating.

This is a book that knows exactly what it's doing. Even the literary echoes (of Faulkner, Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Warren's "All the King's Men," among others) ring mockingly, exude a bracing irony.

John Washington's complaints about the limitations of history perfectly express the conviction that black people must, by virtue of their experience and their suffering, perceive the world differently than do whites. And, when we finally reach it, the many-layered dream of Africa that lies at the heart of the book is entirely convincing as religious mystery—which we have to work our way into knowing, because it was not, could never have been, a part of us.

That seems to me the ultimate challenge, in a novel that is filled with them and powerfully enriched by them. For me, "The Chaneysville Incident" rivals Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" as the best novel about the black experience in America since Ellison's "Invisible Man" nearly 30 years ago.

Bruce Allen, "Well-Made Novel Sifts Black History" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 1981, p. 17.