John Edgar Wideman once told an interviewer that for a long time he did not respect the short story. He thought the form too gimmicky, that is, he added, until he began to see how a short story has its own kind of logic and beauty. Most of these ten stories, as in Wideman’s earlier collections, Damballah (1981), Fever (1989), and The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (1992), explore the logic and beauty of the short story by rejecting linear narrative for a lyrical form of meditation and improvisation characteristic of jazz riff, a form that derives from the repetitive call-and-response patterns of West African music.
God’s Gym takes its title from the opening story “Weight,” chosen as the first prizewinner in the 2000 edition of the O. Henry Awards Prize Stories. In the contributors’ notes to that collection, Wideman says that the opening line of the story, “My mother is a weightlifter,” came to him first and that he wrote the story in order to discover what the sentence meantonly to realize that it was about his whole life, specifically about his relationship with his mother. The story is a touching extended eulogy which, both lyrically and lightheartedly, explores a metaphor of the mother as a weightlifter, who should wear a T-shirt with the words “God’s Gym,” for she bears the burdens of her family and neighbors. It ends with the son twisting his fingers into the brass handles of her coffin and lifting.
Because he is always so concerned with the relationship of fiction to reality, Wideman explores here the process by which he wrote the story, recounting how his mother initially objected to the levity of the metaphor, complaining that he should be ashamed of himself for taking the Lord’s name in vain by using the phrase “God’s T-shirt.” Admitting that events in the story may not have happened exactly the way he describes them, Wideman knows that what actually happened is sometimes less important than finding a good way to tell it. In “Weight,” Wideman’s way of telling the story of his mother is to explore the implications of a metaphor as he practices for her death, trying on for size a world without her.
“Are Dreams Faster than the Speed of Light” is another exploration of the parent/child relationship, in this case a son’s responsibility to his father. When a man is told he has only a few months left to live, he realizes that the most important task on his “must do” list is to kill his own father, a fiercely independent old man who can no longer care for himself and is confined to a hospital like a fatally wounded animal. Wideman identifies the central character of the story as himself, referring to the fact that he takes his middle name, Edgar, from his father. He extends his meditation (or what he calls a riff) by comparing his relationship with his father with spiritual fathers and sons of the pastSocrates and Plato, Aristotle and Vergil.
Wideman also includes meditations, or jazz riffs, on some of his spiritual ancestors. “The Silence of Thelonious Monk” celebrates artists before Wideman who have tried to go beyond the referentiality of language and the temporality of time to achieve some transcendent state or quality. As the narrator of the story recalls listening to the music of the great jazz musician Thelonious Monk, he identifies with Monk’s enigmatic silences of speech and the transcendent wordlessness of his music. Trying to find a way to express his inexpressible sense of loneliness after the loss of a lover, the narrator says that love is as close to music as one can get and that he hears his loved one’s comings and goings in the music of Monk. In the early morning hours he lies awake, lamenting that his story is about not holding on to the woman tightly enough and that, like Monk, he has retreated to silence. However, the great musician upbraids him in a dream, arguing that he never retreated but rather attacked in a different direction.
In addition to his paean to the music he loves, Wideman, who was an all-Ivy basketball player, pays tribute to the sport at which he once excelled. “Who Invented the Jump Shot” an excerpt from his 2001 memoir Hoop Roots, ostensibly a fanciful satiric exploration of a basketball mystery, is actually an opportunity for Wideman to put himself inside the characters of others, including a young basketball player, and to examine the complexity of the...
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