David Bradley Mel Watkins

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Mel Watkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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[Philadelphia's "South Street"] is one of the gutted bastions of the down-and-out, the hopeless, the poor, and of the predators who feed on them. In this exceptional first novel ["South Street"], David Bradley takes us on a guided tour. We are ushered behind the dingy facade of "burned-out boarded-up bashed-in storefronts" dotted with bars, liquor stores and transient hotels; a facade that we've all hurried past, probably with a twinge of disgust and a small dose of cold fear. More important, Mr. Bradley introduces us to the street people who thrive in these cramped spaces, and brings them vividly to life….

"South Street" is not simply another grim, naturalistic litany of the anguish of the downtrodden. Without blunting the pathos of this tale, Mr. Bradley has infused what could have been a standard story and stock characters with new vigor. Probing beneath the sociological stereotypes, he portrays his characters with a fullness that amplifies much of the lusty irony of ghetto life. His characters are trapped in their vermin-infested tenements but they are not overwhelmed…. It is Bradley's unerring depiction of the vitality that rears itself even within this despairing setting that distinguishes this novel.

Still, "South Street" has its flaws. Mr. Bradley's narratives on South Street and the surrounding geography are sometimes overextended and tiresome—like the loquacious drone of a facile tour guide delivering his spiel. And Adlai Stevenson Brown, the intellectual observer, is not drawn with the sure-handed conviction demonstrated with lesser characters. Also, the novel's plot is exceedingly thin: Brown faces down Leroy Briggs in Lightnin' Ed's bar, challenging his authority and setting off ripples that are felt throughout Briggs's domain. And this simple plot structure provides the occasion for a series of set pieces about the various inhabitants of South Street.

It is, however, within these set pieces that Mr. Bradley's talent shines brightest. Some of them … are remarkably well-crafted vignettes. In these instances and throughout much of the novel, Mr. Bradley uses satire, burlesque and a perfectly pitched ear for ghetto dialect to establish a narrative tone that is both delightfully humorous and poignantly revealing.

In fact, throughout most of the novel, as when listening to some of the best of the comedian Richard Pryor's routines, one is poised on the finely tuned edge of Bradley's comic thrusts and the bitter reality that he is exposing….

"South Street" then, despite its flaws, is a fine first novel…. David Bradley displays a versatile fictional talent within which control and technique are matched with an incisive eye for detail and an oblique viewpoint both refreshing and entertaining. It is to his credit that in his debut he has risked depicting some very familiar stereotypes and managed to cast them in a unique mold. He is a writer to watch.

Mel Watkins, "Old Winos, New Bottle," in The New York Times (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 4, 1975, p. 25.