Thomas M. Gannon
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
David Bradley gambled that he could work the historical experience of black people in this country into a successful novel without writing a conventional historical novel. As it turns out, Bradley lost his gamble, for The Chaneysville Incident is not successful, at least not as a novel. Too much of it is thinly disguised history, rather than deeply felt, imaginatively transformed experience….
Bradley filters his historical material through the consciousness of the novel's narrator, a 30-ish black historian named John Washington…. The novel's principal action is Washington's … immersion in his family's history in an attempt to solve the mystery of his father's suicide and complete the historical research that had preoccupied his father in the years before his death. Large quantities of data on the situation of black people in America, from the origins of the slave trade until the present, are or become part of Washington's understanding of the world around him, but they are never fully assimilated into the structure of the novel. Again and again, the data is presented in large, undifferentiated chunks, through overly precious expository passages or in the virtual lectures that Washington delivers to his lover, a white psychiatrist named Judith Powell. For long periods, the novel stands still for the recitation of the history within the story.
The novel's problems are not limited to its structure; there are serious flaws in plot and characterization as well. Washington and his lover belong to the next generation of racial stereotypes. He is the standard variety superblack, a Renaissance man from the other side of the tracks, a brilliant scholar, an accomplished woodsman, a mighty hunter…. Powell, with her enormous capacity for hanging around, putting up with Washington's moody silences and trying to "share" and "understand," is a strong contender for the title of Ms. White Liberal Guilt of 1981. Finally, the novel's ending creaks with contrivance. The major complexities of the plot, including the mystery of the suicide of Washington's father and the truth about the original Chaneysville incident, are resolved in a single drunken vision. It is all too easy, an abdication of responsibility on the author's part.
Bradley writes most effectively about Washington's boyhood, vividly recreating the richly textured experience of a black boy growing up in the 1950's in a small Pennsylvania town where racial distinctions, though unofficial and unsanctioned by law, were suffocatingly real. A novel more narrowly focused on this experience (which is Bradley's own, of course), though less ambitious than The Chaneysville Incident, would probably have been more successful.
Thomas M. Gannon, "Book Reviews: 'The Chaneysville Incident'," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1981; all rights reserved), Vol. 144, No. 21, May 30, 1981, p. 449.