David Bradley Jerome Charyn - Essay

Jerome Charyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"South Street" is an ambitious, scraggly novel with deep pockets and vast, bumping corners that reach into the "limbo between the Schuylkill and the Delaware," for a long, bitter look at the corrugated country of black Philadelphia. Its gifted young author, David Bradley, doesn't take us into the heartlands. South Street, with its "elephantine cockroaches and rats the size of cannon shells," exists at the border of the ghetto…. Rubbing against Lombard Street and white Philadelphia, South Street in Mr. Bradley's book becomes a kind of haunted wasteland with "softening tar," gap-tooth buildings, and its own disturbing life.

The locus of the novel seems to be Lightnin' Ed's bar, where Mr. Bradley's characters leak out their existence. (pp. 30, 32)

The tension of the novel is generated by Adlai Stevenson Brown, a mystery figure from outside the ghetto who enters Lightnin' Ed's and shames [numbers king] Leroy Briggs in front of the bar's steady customers. Leroy, whose hold on South Street is beginning to slip, has to avenge himself, but he's afraid that Brown might be tied to the Mafia of white Philadelphia…. Brown, we discover, is a young black poet who came to South Street to shuck off his middle-class baggage and feed on ghetto life.

It's Adlai Stevenson Brown who gets the author into trouble; a thin creation, predictable in his language and his suffering, Brown can't carry the structure of the novel on his back. "South Street" collapses the more Brown is revealed to us. Still, he doesn't destroy the legitimacy of Lightnin' Ed's; the preachers, whores and hoodlums claw at us with their vitality and the harsh power of their voices. Despite Brown, "South Street" remains a deeply felt book with an unfortunate amount of flab. (p. 32)

Jerome Charyn, "Black Philly," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1975, pp. 30, 32.