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Ishmael (Scott) Reed 1938–
See also, Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 6, 13 and 174.
(Has also written under pseudonym of Emmett Coleman) Black American novelist, poet, essayist, editor, and critic.
One of the leading satirists in contemporary black literature, Reed is best known for those novels in which he examines politics, religion, and technology as repressive forces. Although the central target of his work is Western civilization, Reed's primary concern in his writings is the establishment of an alternative black aesthetic. His new aesthetic, termed Neo-HooDoo, focuses on such ancient rites as conjuring, magic, and voodoo. Reed contends that by reclaiming these primordial rituals, black Americans and third world peoples will purge themselves of Western conditioning and will ultimately regain their freedom and mystic vision. Reed identifies this process as necromancy. In an interview, he stated that "people go into the past and get some metaphor from the past to explain the present or the future. Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future."
Reed's parodies of literary genres produce a combination of the ridiculous and the didactic. His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), is structured as a nineteenth-century Gothic Bildungsroman. The young hero in the novel undergoes a chaotic search for self-awareness and purpose in a society obsessed with power. In Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), Reed introduces his Neo-HooDoo concept. The novel is a spoof of the Western "dime" novel fused with allegory, contemporary urban culture, and history. Reed extends his Neo-HooDoo concept in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Both novels are mysteries in which a voodoo detective, Papa LaBas, attempts to combat the spells and charms cast by the white establishment to anesthetize the artistic and political black communities. Houston A. Baker contended that Mumbo Jumbo offers "a conspiracy view of history, a critical handbook for the student of the black arts, and a guide for the contemporary black consciousness intent on the discovery of its origins and meaning." Other critics, however, proposed that Reed's attempt to promote Neo-HooDoo obstructed his creative process and feared that his work was becoming repetitious and rhetorical. In his novels Flight To Canada (1976) and The Terrible Twos (1982), Reed abandons Neo-HooDoo for zany farce, complete with the irony and hilarious dialogues that are trademarks of his earlier work.
Reed has also published several volumes of poetry and two collections of essays devoted to black culture. In addition, he founded a publishing company devoted to producing and distributing works of unknown ethnic artists.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 6, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 33.)
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Flight to Canada is, of all things, a comic exploration of slavery by the best black writer around. The novel is genuinely funny, for Reed has not rendered faithfully the horrors of servitude but rather created a grotesque Civil War America out of scraps and snippets of the past, the present and the mythic. In the process he has put together a brilliant montage of scenes, potent with feeling and thought, designed to flash on the mind's eye with the brilliance of stained-glass windows in a dark interior. The book is memorable, original and wonderfully entertaining.
The main character, Raven Quickskill, is a slave who runs away from his master, Arthur Swille, hides out in Emancipation City and finally, after the war has ended, makes it over the border into Canada. Until his former owner is dead and buried, Quickskill must remain a fugitive, since Swille has resolved to capture him come what may. Throughout the tale the narration alternates between scenes back at the plantation in Virginia and scenes of Quickskill's precarious freedom. (p. 247)
The acrid merriment that boils under the Southern scenes thrills and disturbs us. How can we like these monsters? What moral sense can we make of a novel in which a fugitive slave ends up a whore and an Uncle Tom inherits a fortune (even if he has to forge his master's will to do so)? Reed's fantasia on the classic themes of black suffering is a virtuoso performance. His endless list of names for blacks (cocoas, sables, kinks, mahoganies, spooks, shines, sbleezers, smokes, picks) is as funny and intolerable as a minstrel show. What troubles me is that Flight to Canada, the best work of black fiction since Invisible Man, both invites and outrages moral interpretation.
I'm not saying that Reed is endorsing inhumanity simply by portraying it; his views are not to be confused with those of his characters. No, the sin and the glory of this book is far more subtle. What Reed has done is to assign to his vicious characters, and to them alone, his own creative vitality—the very same "mistake" Balzac made, the titan whose novels Reed's book brings to mind, nor for its style but for its remarkable drive. As someone once pointed out, Balzac's characters were not representative of humanity in general because he made them all geniuses in his own image; Reed has done the same thing with his terrifying Mammy Barracuda.
Quibbles aside, Flight to Canada must be hailed as an irrepressibly funny and mordant meditation on the eternal present of slavery in America. The book, however, functions not only as a distorting mirror held up to the continuing history of servitude but also as the record of a single consciousness attempting to kill off the slave within—an heroic project that Chekhov once commended to us all. (pp. 248-49)
Edmund White, "A Fantasia on Black Suffering," in The Nation, Vol. 223, No. 8, September 18, 1976, pp. 247-49.
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["Flight to Canada"] is a demonized "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a book that reinvents the particulars of slavery in America with a comic rage. Reed has little use for statistical realities. He is a necromancer, a believer in the voodoos of art. Time becomes a modest, crazy fluid in Reed's head, allowing him to mingle events of the last 150 years, in order to work his magic. We have Abe Lincoln and the Late Show, slave catchers and "white-frosted Betty Crocker glossy cake," Jefferson Davis and Howard K. Smith. Every gentleman's carriage is equipped with "factory climate-control air conditioning, vinyl top, AM/FM stereo radio, full leather interior, power-lock doors, six-way power seat, power windows, white-wall wheels, door-edge guards, bumper impact strips, rear defroster and soft-ray glass."
It isn't simple fun, backdrops for a minstrel show. The author seems to be telling us that the cluttered paraphernalia of our past, present and future are interchangeable, abused extensions of ourselves, flat and unreal. They enslave us, turn us into pieces of property that smother our feelings, inhibit our rage. (p. 5)
The closest thing to a hero is an Uncle Tom, called "Uncle Robin" in the book. Explaining himself to "Massa Swille," Robin says, "I loves it here…. We gets whipped with a velvet whip, and there's free dental care." When his master dies, Uncle Robin inherits the entire estate, after "dabbling" with Arthur's will. "Yeah, they get down on me and Tom. But who's the fool? Nat Turner or us?…. Now Nat's dead and gone for these many years, and here I am master of a dead man's house."
The situations in the book remain fairly slick. The comedy often lugs along without a sense of terror. We aren't really moved by Quickskill and Uncle Robin. But it isn't Reed's intention to stick flesh on his characters. They are tropes, ideas that sing and dance for us as Reed plays out his sense of history. "Flight to Canada" is a clutch of circus acts that demonstrate paranoia, American-style. For the white man it is "nigger fever," a curious disease. (pp. 5, 12)
The black man isn't immune. He has his own "nigger fever," his own mad jump into the great North American maw. We are all confidence men, for Ishmael Reed. We are masks within masks, little kingfish in a murderous country.
"Flight to Canada" could have been a very thin book, an unsubtle catalogue of American disorders. But Reed has the wit, the style, and the intelligence to do much more than that. The book explodes. Reed's special grace is anger. His own sense of bewilderment deepens the comedy, forces us to consider the sad anatomy of his ideas. "Flight to Canada" is a hellish book with its own politics and a muscular, luminous prose. It should survive. (p. 12)
Jerome Charyn, in a review of "Flight to Canada," in The New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1976, pp. 5, 12.
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Ishmael Reed's new novel, Flight to Canada, is high and wild comedy, sometimes funny, too often forced, acknowledging a painful life, but not deriving from it…. The time is the Civil War, but the jokes are contemporary—jokes about history, religion, education and politics, which are merely okay; and literary jokes which are better by inches….
Reed's central literary joke is also his most sober point: the impossibility of escape (flight) from bondage except by way of oneself; and the attendant conception of North (Canada) as heaven. Writers of black fiction have been dealing with both ideas since the turn of the century, with Walter White's Flight in the '20s and Wright's crucial chapter ("Flight") of Native Son, and countless versions of "Exodus." In a state of slavery, ancient or modern, the problem is not whether to flee, but where. The so-called "great" migration North changed nothing in and after the long run. By the time Reed takes up the theme, it has become a running gag….
The trouble with Flight to Canada, however, is that its laughter also rides only on words, and the words are not sufficient. If the book were funnier than it is, its seriousness would be more memorable. But too many of Reed's jokes are weak or old standup routines, and when you come to the end of his joy ride you haven't laughed enough to be moved by the change of direction. Comedy has to laugh at something other than itself to bring down the house. Or to build it up again.
Roger Rosenblatt, "North Toward Home," in Book World—The Washington Post, November 14, 1976, p. L4.
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Central to understanding Ishmael Reed's fiction is an analysis of the ways in which he creates and uses literary folklore. It has for him dual purposes: it is practical and theoretical. Practically it serves to advance the plot, provide structure, defend and raise questions about the nature of society. Theoretically it has at its disposal a vast and largely untapped reservoir of African and Afro-American history, folklore and myth. The components of the practical and theoretical categories are intricately interwoven into a fiction which raises external questions of verisimilitude … that are largely absent in the literary folklore of Killens, Chesnutt, Hurston and Alice Walker. Reed labels this confluence of history's external realities and myths' internal or subjective realities "La Bas," a term deeply associated with HooDoo.
In Reed, then, literary folklore can be seen as a structured innovation. The structure relates largely to historical parallels. The history, however, is rewritten through a process that Reed calls necromancy: using the events in the race's past to comment on the present and prophesy about the future. Through necromancy Reed offers us alternative views of slavery, the Harlem Renaissance and the sixties. The innovative aspect is also a function of necromancy: it asserts alternative views of history. This aspect also has a political reality which emerges as a set of reactions to changes in the external world. At such times it attempts to restore order by invoking the old gods, heroes, and heroines and a novel world view which is based on the old ways of HooDoo. His political literary folklore also seeks, however obliquely, to offer alternatives to existing reality. (p. 41)
As literary folklore, Neo-HooDoo and HooDoo differ radically. Neo-HooDoo is largely urban while HooDoo is rural. Consider, for example, the rural conjurers in Chesnutt's Conjure Woman and several of Alice Walker's short stories in In Love And Trouble and then contrast them to Papa Labas in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red. He is cultured and urbane. His customers arrive in chauffered limousines to "have their heads fitted." In the Chesnutt and Walker stories the conjurers' customers are slaves, or other destitute blacks, who go to the conjurer as more or less a last means of resort. In such cases the problems are specific and limited: a better master or the need to have one's lover returned. Thus HooDoo as literary folklore rarely transcends the resolution of a particular problem. The concern is primarily existential and the larger society, which in most cases is either slave or southern rural, is left unaffected. (pp. 41-2)
Neo-HooDoo takes on whole cultures and thus assumes an epic structure. Linear time is dismissed and replaced by a spatial time which can make ancient history current. Due to its engulfing approach the conjurers in the Neo-HooDoo religion are not, in contrast with the HooDoo conjurers in some Afro-American fiction, specific about their conjurations. Ed Yellings' "Solid Gumbo works" in The Last Days of Louisiana Red is loosely defined and amorphous. We only know that it functions to end the plague of "Louisiana Red." (p. 42)
Among the important themes in Reed's fiction are the conflict of blacks and whites, the function of the white critic, the impact of the white man and black woman on the black man, the "field nigger" as political opportunist and the importance of self-reliance. In each instance the literary folklore involved varies in focus and intensity. In delineating the black/white conflict the ancient African past serves as the basis for explanation while the Afro-American slave experience plays a similar role in explicating the theme of the "field nigger" as political opportunist. Similarly, the role of "LaBas" varies: it may be fundamental and precise in making the role of necromancy clear as in Mumbo Jumbo; or it may be less crucial and more nebulous as in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. The literary folklore, especially necromancy and LaBas, are therefore variable. An explication of the above themes will allow generalizations about the unique politics that influenced them.
In Reed the black/white conflict avoids the stance of a protest novel by being skillfully placed in a historical context which undermines traditional positions on the subject. This occurs most graphically in Mumbo Jumbo where in an extended, though truncated, world history, Black Herman relates the conflict between Set and Osiris and how it evolved into two opposing world views. Set, the killjoy "Atonist" (sun worshipper), is the prototype of a certain type western man: as a progenitor of the military-industrial complex, reason must forever remain separate from feeling. Osiris is the working sensualist who combines reason and feeling. As a jazz musician he travels around the world with his original "Roots" band, blaring out the infectious "Black Mud Sound" of the river Nile. While Osiris is away on a gig—this according to Black Herman—Set takes over and ushers in a kind of Puritanism which outlaws dancing and other sensual delights. When Osiris returns Set challenges him to perform his famous seed trick in which he, Osiris, is buried and then springs up like a new bud. If successful, Set says that he will gladly relinquish his Puritanical reign. Osiris accepts the challenge, is encased in a large vase and lowered into the Nile. He is to rise the following day at noon. He never makes it because Set sends his henchmen to remove the vase and to murder and dismember Osiris. Thoth, an Osiris devotee who is given credit for having established a "text" (the "LaBas" method) for the spiritual sensuality which characterizes the Osirian world view, demands an investigation. For his efforts he is run underground where he joins other clandestine Osirian worshippers.
Black Herman's history is considerable: little is left unaffected by the conflict between Set and Osiris. But for our purposes—viewing the black/white conflict in Reed's fiction—it is sufficient to note that Set's followers are primarily white while the Osirian followers are predominantly black. Racial origins are not sufficient, however, in determining to which group an individual might belong. Many blacks in Reed's world have taken the Atonist path—consciously or otherwise. Conversely, numbers of whites find the Osirian approach more to their liking. These, however, are primarily exceptions. Functionally, then, the white/black dichotomy is reflected in the Set/Osiris duality.
In Mumbo Jumbo it is the Atonist path that "'Jes Grew" threatens to humble. "'Jes Grew" is an infectious entity which animates its host, causing once sober individuals to feel "as if they could dance on a dime." Significantly, Mumbo Jumbo is set in the Jazz Age, the era of the Harlem Renaissance—a period when Afro-American cultural activity reached a zenith. In the Jazz Age of Mumbo Jumbo this activity, especially as it represented black potential, was symbolized by "'Jes Grew," a manifestation of the Osirian worldview. It ignored color, causing even whites to "shake that thang" and to feel "like the gut heart and lungs of Africa's interiors." Therefore the Atonist had to crush this ancient, recurring, though always nebulous plague. For it threatened "civilization as we know it." (pp. 42-4)
The Harlem of the twenties is a hotbed for practitioners of the Osirian worldview. It is a place that the Atonist finds intolerable—too much movement and passion for Set's task. Reed's necromancy places the Jazz Age squarely in the context of an ancient and epic struggle. (p. 44)
The Atonist path in Mumbo Jumbo is epitomized by Hinkle Von Vampton…. A resourceful white critic, Von Vampton will have no more "white negroes." This heathen thing called "'Jes Grew" must be eradicated. His chosen method of eradication is, in a generic sense, what it is that "'Jes Grew" is after: an institutionalized process, that fusion of the psychic and the real—"LaBas." Von Vampton starts a journal, the Benign Monster, in which he publishes certain Afro-American writers who follow the Atonist Path. These writers, the Benign Monster's contributors, are intolerant of innovation. They are frozen in time like artifacts of Elizabethan England, dutifully churning out Shakespearean sonnets.
Anything suggestive of an Afro-American folk culture—part of the material which forms literary folklore—is, like "'Jes Grew," anathema. It lacks culture and is primitive: Papa LaBas, the book's hero, is stopped, along with Black Herman, at the door of a reception by an irate black hostess. She shouts, "… get out of here you men you gate crashers. I don't want no conjure men's detectives in this house you ain't society you ain't money you ain't no artist you don't have no degree." Such eloquence encapsulates the Benign Monster's editorial policy. (pp. 44-5)
Minnie the Moocher is the Bitch in league with the white man in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. (p. 45)
Reed makes understanding Minnie and the Moochers [a parasitic political organization] possible in a broad sense by using the Afro-American slave experience as a reference point. The slave experience provided the occasion for white men and black women to form "unholy" alliances—the former as a kind of patient and the latter as a sex therapist. Together they work to keep the black man in his place. He is acceptable only when he is "on the corner sipping Ripple." Any black man who attempts action that is in his best interest is destroyed. Black men are effectively reduced to a monolith…. Minnie is merely a reincarnation of a century old type who functions with the white man to keep the black man in his place. Such is the necromancy; the sixties, or specific aspects of it (certain interracial groups which focus only on a supposed commonality of oppression: a mechanical materialist notion, almost Pavlovian in its predictability, ignores those who confronted and transcended these conditions), are to be understood in this context.
The slave experience also provides the context for the "field nigger." In Reed, this figure is not afforded romantic or sympathetic treatment. Street Yellings, another of Ed's offsprings gone bad, is the modern version of the "field nigger." His field, as his name asserts, is the street; there he is at his spontaneous best. Street is imprisoned for smashing the skull of one of his comrades. There he has his "conscious raised" and escapes to an "emerging African nation." In this nation Street has all the sensual delights imaginable—uppers and downers, endless orgies, and the latest movies. Street is the kind of "nigger" that white men and (black) women can love. They, the women, in fond remembrance of his skill, named a rape clinic after him. Maxwell Kasavubu [a white critic], attempting to lure Street back to the United States in order to head the Moocher organization, resorts to a pastoral tradition which transforms Street into a noble savage. (pp. 45-6)
Flight To Canada treats the phenomenon of the house slave more directly than other Reed novels. In highlighting the character traits of a successful house slave, one who has managed to inherit the plantation, Reed brings self-reliance and NeoHooDoo together in a fashion that is unique in its thrust. Being aware of the dictum that "God helps those who help themselves," Uncle Robin and Aunt Judy deal with their oppression in two ways. They first do the necessary physical labor, albeit in a cunning fashion, and Uncle Robin then invokes one of the old gods. He says, "Well sometimes the god that's fast for them is slow or even indifferent to us, so we have to call on our gods who work for us." So, through hard work Uncle Robin and Aunt Judy buy their children's freedom and by praying to the proper god, a HooDoo god, they are able to alter reality.
What is unique about Reed's combination of self-reliance and Neo-HooDoo is its functional duplicity, the getting the job done without broadcasting the intent or technique. In much black fiction a great deal of time is taken in exposing and depicting various injustices. In Reed these things are given; consequently, Reed can concentrate on his Neo-HooDoo informed necromancy. Therefore Reed's characters move with full knowledge: a practical knowledge of past injustices results in a self-reliant attitude which is united with an explanatory Neo-HooDoo. In Reed, then, self-reliance and Neo-HooDoo merge to create a kind of practical/super-natural Horatio Alger story. (p. 47)
The scope, intent and method of Reed's literary folklore are what separates him from other black writers with similar concerns. His channeling of millenium old tales and history into an enlightening contemporary context is unique. His intent is not a flag-waving affair which asserts that "my culture is better than yours" but rather an attempt to let flow the stifled information and accomplishments of third world (non-white) cultures. The method is a structured innovation: all is said but it is said in an unpredictable fashion. The structure relates to historical parallels and the unpredictability to Neo-HooDoo.
Despite what I call "the political uniqueness" of Reed's literary folklore, his writing is not heavy in a pedantic sense. It is inclusive, but its inclusiveness is presented in a manner that is exciting. The aesthetic approach of Neo-HooDoo is what allows Reed's writing to cover so much ground without being tired. (p. 49)
Norman Harris, "Politics As an Innovate Aspect of Literary Folklore: A Study of Ishmael Reed," in Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, Vol. 5, Nos. 1 & 2, Spring & Summer, 1979, pp. 41-50.
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It is a mistake to see any one black writer as representative of the "black experience" (whatever that is), and it is even a greater mistake to pin a label on a writer like Ishmael Reed. His name is appropriate—he is a genuine maverick. As a critic of American culture, he has taken on smug feminists, omniscient white scholars (who know Negro literature), and con men of all colors, creeds, and sexes…. As a writer (poet and novelist), Reed belongs to no "school" of Afro-American art, and he has managed to be maligned, with equal intensity, by white and black critics alike…. Although the satire in his novels is frequently outrageous (he delights in using the comic strip as a literary device), it can also be subtle—even sneaky. Reed is constantly reminding America of skeletons in her closet, and while his method is often that of the minstrel show, his message is sometimes a pie in the face when you are not looking.
[Shrovetide in Old New Orleans] is something different for Reed: a collection of essays, interviews, book reviews, self-appraisals and appraisals of others. Actually, Shrovetide is an apologia pro vita sua in the guise of a tossed salad….
The best part of Shrovetide is the satire. Reed has a sharp eye for absurdity, be it of the white man's making or the black man's. (p. 275)
Reed also uses his mischievous laughter to make some serious observations about American society. The theme of Shrovetide can be seen in the title. In Christian lore, "Shrovetide" refers to the three days before Lent, the last day being Shrove Tuesday or "Mardi Gras" ("Fat Tuesday"). This day is one of merrymaking and thus provides the Christian explanation for the famous holiday held each year in New Orleans. Reed insists, however, that another religious spirit is responsible for the joyous anarchy which prevails on "Fat Tuesday": Voodoo (or vodoun, as it is sometimes called). According to Reed, voodoo is the survival of African religion in the New World; this religion (or religions) was transformed by the New World but it remained untouched by (and ran counter to) the dominant Judeo-Christian tradition. Voodoo embraces both the sacred and profane…. (p. 276)
Reed argues that as a writer he is "influenced by as many cultures as possible," but in Shrovetide he often juxtaposes life-giving voodoo with the life-denying Judeo-Christian tradition. He goes into this subject in some depth, and for this reason I would recommend Shrovetide to anyone about to pick up one of his novels…. In all of them, Reed sets up a dialectical opposition between Western civilization and the pagan world which it fears and despises…. Reed is most brilliant when he turns Western myth on its head, making heroes of the bad guys, and bad guys of the heroes. In Yellow Back Radio, the devil is a black cowboy in a white hat (Loop Garu) who squares off with the Pope (who talks like a used-car salesman). In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, selfish, willful Antigone tries to push Chorus off stage; the community is threatened by a monomaniac.
I like Reed's brand of looniness, but I run into a problem when I hear him defining his own satire. He calls his "so-called 'humor' … affirmative, positive," and goes on to give the impression in his introduction to Shrovetide that he is as tolerant and fun-loving as his hero Osiris. Yet on another occasion in Shrovetide he says that he is "just a muckraker at heart." Now which is it—muckraker or Osiris? He may be both, but I doubt it. Reed finds too many things wrong with America. His "humor" serves his fierce indignation; he is more Juvenal than Horace.
And this brings up another minor disagreement which I have with Ishmael Reed. For all his talk about being influenced by "many cultures," I find his "humor" distinctly Western, via Aristophanes, Rabelais, Swift, Pope, et al. When he actually visits Haiti, he seems as much a stranger there as I would be—yet I found his essay fun, enlightening and full of the satire I have come to expect from him…. My impression of Reed's interest in other cultures is that as a satirist he uses the values of these cultures as a means by which he can expose our moral turpitude. He may describe his satire as the "exorcism" of evil spirits, as though he were a voodoo houngan, but the whole tradition of satire in Western civilization is founded upon this very principle of "exorcism." When Reed wrote "D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful" in the 1960s, he said that he was trying to put a "hex" on Richard Nixon because he thought that America would never impeach him. Jonathan Swift did exactly the same thing to Robert Walpole in Gulliver's Travels. Swift felt that England might never rid herself of this power-hungry prime minister, so Swift transfixed his image for all the world to see—and to laugh at. Satire is putting a hex on your enemy, and you don't have to go to other cultures to find an explanation for this truth. (pp. 276-77)
Charles W. Scruggs, in a review of "Shrovetide in Old New Orleans," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 275-77.
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The trouble with The Terrible Twos is that [Reed has] said it all before and said it much better. This time out, he's picked another genre to tear apart with his imposition of varied forms and combinations of perspective. Just as he used Antigone in The Last Days of Louisiana Red to create a brilliant satire that collapsed under the strain of its near-misogyny, and just as he used the western for Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the detective story for Mumbo Jumbo, the slave narrative and Uncle Tom's Cabin for Flight to Canada, Reed weaves Rastafarianism and a reverse of the Todd Clifton dummy sequence from Invisible Man together with Dickens's A Christmas Carol in The Terrible Twos. Again we get the self-obsessed harpies, the mission Indians, the black hero who takes over the white form (unlike Todd Clifton, Black Peter is not controlled by whites who speak through his mouth—he speaks through theirs), the dumb black street hustlers who get into a game too complicated for them to understand, the corruption of Christianity, the secret society of powerful white bosses, the argument that preliterate custom and belief are just as good as modern civilization (if not better) and the beleaguered black hero who has woman problems (Reed touches on the sexual provincialism of black women, which didn't begin to change until the late 1960s when they had to compete with liberated and liberal white women for the affections of black men, but he doesn't do anything with that proverbial hot potato).
I'm not saying that Reed should abandon his concerns, but I am saying that for all the literary appropriations in The Terrible Twos, it hasn't the level of invention that made his best work succeed. There is too much predictability, too much dependence on revelation through conversation and interior monologue. Most of the mysteries must be explained by the characters, and what we do discover through their narratives isn't very interesting. When the President, for instance, is taken into hell, what he sees are the ghosts of presidents and vice presidents past, and there follow heavy-handed scenes of contrition and retribution—Truman grieving over the atom bomb, Rockefeller chained to the corpses of the Attica victims, etc. When Santa Claus and the President get their chance to speak out against the commercialization of Christmas on the one hand and the manipulation of the country by industrialists on the other, the clichés resound. But since Reed considers this novel a surrealist variation on the social realist novel of economic complaint, maybe he thought he should pop the corn rather than serve it in hard kernels. There are some funny passages along the way, however. There is even an attempt to infuse his surreal puppet show with realistic relationships, especially on an erotic level, and this brings what freshness there is to the novel. It also suggests that Reed may soon examine the range of sexual and social attractions that a multiracial society makes so possible, especially since the passage from Europe to the Third World can sometimes take place within only a few city blocks. If that is what he intends for his sequels—The Terrible Threes and The Terrible Fours—then the world he has developed, one quilted with endless allusions, mythology, improvisation and concentric circles of time and culture, could give birth to the potential so basic to the social contract and to the diversity of this country—Ishmael Reed's All-American Novel. The Terrible Twos, unfortunately, is mostly a shadow of his former work, and a shadow that tells us little we don't already know. (pp. 618-19)
Stanley Crouch, "Kinships and Aginships," in The Nation, Vol. 234, No. 20, May 22, 1982, pp. 617-19.
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The notion that contemporary America—with its movie-star President, passion for military hardware, increasing polarization of haves and have-nots—is as politically mature as a 2-year-old child is socially adept, would seem a thin enough idea on which to peg a novel. But while Ishmael Reed's sixth book of fiction, "The Terrible Twos," takes its title from this notion, and some paragraphs are devoted to developing it, this one theme does not begin to exhaust what the novel is about. Like "Mumbo Jumbo" (1972) this latest book is an idiosyncratic mix of political comment, legend, historical analysis, irony, left-handed storytelling, third-world consciousness, pure rage and—amazingly—hope and good will.
"The Terrible Twos" has two parts. The brief opening section, called "A Past Christmas," describes the global and national disarray prevailing around the time of Christmas, 1980, and it introduces some of the characters who will reappear a decade later in the fullness of their influence and/or decline. Part Two, "A Future Christmas," projects ahead to the awful days of December 1990, when the gap between the people called "vital" (those in power) and the people called "surplus" (everyone else) is virtually unbridgeable. The President of the United States is a former male model (clearly a step down the ladder). And Santa himself has been expropriated and syndicated—the result of "a decision handed down in a California court awarding exclusive rights to Santa Claus to Oswald Zumwalt's North Pole Development Corporation." (p. 9)
Lest the plot get away, Mr. Reed jerks the action to a stop from time to time to summarize developments. His own ventriloquial gifts are such that his stick-figure characters take on an eerie life. He can brilliantly parody almost anything: soap opera, newspaper headlines, political cant, the well-made novel. But while the reader is oohing and aahing and ducking for cover, the pyrotechnics sometimes obscure the author's own intent.
Yet some of the best efforts are obtained by two Dickensian excursions. In the first, St. Nick takes the feckless President, Dean Clift, on a trip to "the American hell," where they are greeted by … [Dwight Eisenhower] wearing "the jacket he made famous."… Harry Truman, who is also there, is described by Ike as the most tormented of the inhabitants: "That was no military act," Ike says of Hiroshima, "that was an insult to nature and to God." Then there is Nelson Rockefeller, the man Mr. Reed seems to love most to hate. He is described as being engaged in a ménage à trois, and therefore unable to answer the telephone, when the carnage at Attica occurs.
In his introduction to "Shrovetide in Old New Orleans," his 1978 collection of essays, Mr. Reed (who is also a poet) wrote: "Many people have called my fiction muddled, crazy, incoherent, because I've attempted in fiction the techniques and forms painters, dancers, film makers, musicians in the West have taken for granted for at least fifty years, and the artists of many other cultures, for thousands of years. Maybe I should hang my fiction in a gallery, or play it on the piano."
Maybe he should; but it continues to come at us between covers, pleasantly packaged and modest in length, and apparently he'll "keep on keepin on" until he gets it right. (p. 21)
Ivan Gold, "The Spirit of Christmas Future," in The New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1982, pp. 9, 21.
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The Terrible Twos is the latest in the series of pop-art novels … which, with their bizarre inventions and liveliness of language, have won for Reed a small but vociferous following. The book takes its title from the well-known proclivities of toddlers, aged two, who, according to the novel's fake Santa Claus, set the standard of maturity for our great republic:
"Two years old, that's what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn't bring me this and why didn't Santa bring me that…. Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that's tough. We say too bad to the children who don't have milk. I weep as I read these letters the poor children send to me at my temporary home in Alaska."
Expanding on this theme, Reed has put together an odd contraption made of many disparate parts—among them the Reagan administration, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the hagiography of St. Nicholas, and Dickens's A Christmas Carol….
We quickly meet a crowd of cartoon-like characters: a TV executive, Bob Krantz, who, as soon as Reagan's election was confirmed, ordered all the network's black employees to get rid of their corn-row hairstyles; Dean Clift, the top male model of the United States; a little black Rastafarian ventriloquist and his dummy; a dissatisfied wife named Vixen; and a bright young man, Oswald Zumwalt, who works in a department store and has the bright idea of replacing all the Santa Clauses in America with a single Santa who will have exclusive rights to the name. "Santa Claus is too dispersed as it is," says Zumwalt, whose monopolistic Santa will be made available only to those who can pay for his services….
There is nothing subtle about Reed's satire. The ghosts of Eisenhower, Truman, and Nelson Rockefeller, whom President Clift encounters during his descent into the underworld, all perform much as they would in the pages of Mad Magazine. Occasionally Reed uses a bludgeon: Truman's ghost can't sleep for fear of dreaming of "Japanese faces, burnt, twisted, and peeling, with no eyeballs"; Rockefeller, damned for his role in the Attica uprising, is taunted on the manner of his death. But mostly the ridicule is as cheerful as it is broad….
Reed must be tired of hearing from reviewers that he should take more responsibility for his inventions, that he needs to hold on to them longer and squeeze them harder before tossing them away. But such criticism is inescapable. While Reed's clowning is sufficiently entertaining as one turns the pages, it isn't, in the long run, clever enough, bitter enough, or (above all) funny enough to nourish the reader's imagination after the book is finished. (p. 35)
Robert Towers, "Good Men Are Hard to Find," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIX, No. 13, August 12, 1982, pp. 35-6.∗
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I find myself with a troublesome voice sounding off warnings about what I should and should not say about Ishmael Reed's new novel, The Terrible Twos. And I wonder to what extent that voice is a phantom of white liberal guilt I thought I had exorcised.
Exorcism is a good place to begin with Reed. He is the darling of a number of new fiction critics who see him as the all-purpose literary necromancer, the black shaman who conjures vital new myths against the backdrop of the dead carcass of white western aesthetics. This version of Reed as the juju man incanting powerfully pyrotechnic amulets called "words" to rouse us from our cultural decadence is itself a bit moribund. Reed's powers—and I am speaking here of the literary rather than the hierophantic—have been on the wane for quite some time. Like Kurt Vonnegut, he began as a clever new voice of satire and sanity and simply ran out of steam after too many novels.
The new novel is a case in point. Which is not to say that there is nothing in it to challenge our imaginations. But mostly it is a hodgepodge of social satire that either falls flat or reads silly. There is little in the book's narrative that is new or even funny, and funny is at least what we had come to expect from Reed. Even the compelling qualities of a good comic book, identifiable with earlier Reed fiction, are gone from The Terrible Twos, a would-be spoof on an infantilized and merchandizing American culture.
The Terrible Twos has all of the material in it for good satire. Madison Avenue's selling of Santa Claus. America's complicity with Nazis. Reagan as Scrooge. Characters who suggest the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Richard Viguerie. Somehow it all adds up to a bunch of sketchy silliness with characters so flat that, should we choose generously to see them as cartoon animations, they still seem to have been run over by a steamroller. Reed is the steamroller. With too many targets, esoteric facts such as the Kentucky Wild Turkey distilleries being protected by guard dogs get interspersed freely with a lot of diffuse and mostly ineffectual satiric bits….
The Terrible Twos is experimental but nonetheless weak fiction from a novelist who has thrown some terrible, albeit justified tantrums publicly, and who has been one of the most visible and vocal fighters of the good fight of breaking down racial barriers in the publishing and literary reviewing worlds. But he has never been the heavyweight that some critics, perhaps feeling themselves up against the wall of white liberal guilt, have championed. An experimental black fiction writer like Clarence Majors would lay Reed out cold. So would … writers like Ernest Gaines and Al Young, neither of whom is as visible or as vocal, and hence, as recognized as Reed. One thinks, too, of a host of more gifted black writers who have been virtually ignored by critics…. Both Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, who, like Reed, have received a great deal of attention and spotlight, unfortunately in some instances more for their being black women than for their obvious gifts, both could easily whomp Reed.
Why then has Reed been singled out for so much extravagant praise and attention?…
Reed's reputation emerged at a time when, to borrow from Langston Hughes, blacks were in vogue. Since the '70s he has turned out a slew of mediocre novels of which the most recent is the most inferior and the most self-indulgent. What once was celebrated in his fiction as the new black ethos with indigenous folk roots that spanned from Buffalo to Berkeley and hearkened back to voodoo and Egyptology, has turned into, to use Julius Lester's word on Reed, "sophomoric" lightweight polemics. The early invective against the likes of Harry Sam is gone. The cowboy has fallen out of the boat of Ra….
Understand that Reed wrote initially with enough charm and innovative use of language to deserve a good deal of the attention. His voice was inventive and fresh. He wrote essays and began presses and promoted young writers and did prodigious research and read and lectured everywhere. But like most other worlds of entertainment, which authorship most certainly is these days, the exposure began to count for far more than the quality. Reed became the black literary "celeb." His symbolic role as the black Ishmael not getting his due, as the West Coast writer not getting his due, began to dwarf his declining talent. The white eastern literary establishment, which he inveighed against so indignantly, went on praising him and reviewing him even after his magic was gone. (p. 10)
[I] recall how outraged Reed felt at the success of Doctorow's Ragtime which he believed was a direct rip-off of his work. This was no case like Margaret Walker suing Alex Haley. It was Reed seeing himself as the victim of white purloining going all the way back to the slave era when blacks were prohibited from owning patents. Reed has that personal sense of history and he makes his readers and public acutely aware of it in ways which make him personally seem the ongoing victim of hostile literary apartheid. The white folks in this all too often real scenario are ubiquitous, hovering, ready to steal every single dance routine. But the equation hardly applies when, as in the case of The Terrible Twos, the dancing has almost all gone lame. (p. 14)
Michael Krasny, "Pyrotechnic Amulets: 'The Terrible Twos'," in San Francisco Review of Books, January-February, 1983, pp. 10, 14.
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I like Ishmael Reed. There is so much of him. He is going on forty-six at the time I write, is still healthy and pugnacious, and has already incarnated himself in more forms than two normal men do in a lifetime…. Not everyone likes him as much as I do. Some call him too conservative. Some call him unreadable. Some call him silly and superficial. But he is so active and productive in so many fields of contemporary American art that he cannot be ignored. In the late sixties, when he was one of a couple dozen young black writers seeking an audience in that atmosphere of black revolutionary chic, he came on as a kind of enfant terrible. Yet, even at the time, before we knew better, his revolution didn't seem that much different from that of William Melvin Kelley, or Ronald Fair, or John O. Killens. Now it is clear that he was not created by a movement or a time. He has survived the ways of publishers who, perhaps for their own survival, will not print what they assume will not sell—and black literary anger has not sold for some time.
Reed is an artist of many talents with a clear and consistent world view and a vision of America that is both affectionate and critical. In the six books of prose fictional satire he has so far written, he pieces that vision together in a style that is sometimes lyrical and poetic, sometimes flat and unimaginative.
In his younger days, we might have called Reed an "experimental" writer. He worked hard to break free of traditional forms and create a fiction for his own ideas. (p. 195)
We are still too close to Reed to say whether he is a true original. If he is, he doesn't seem to have created a school; no one seems to be imitating him. But not many black American writers have cut their links with realism and naturalism so completely as Reed has done. He does not belong in the same historical line as Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Faulkner. His context is the American pop culture: the political cartoon, the routine of a stand-up comedian, the high jinks of Mad Comics. His vocabulary and allusions come from the cliches of TV, best-selling books, newspaper and magazine commercials, and movies. (p. 196)
Reed is not an exceptional stylist. He can be graceful and elegant, but much of his prose is flat and arhythmical. If he has models, one of them is the Nathanael West of A Cool Million, the crazy parody of the Horatio Alger success story, and The Dream Life of Balso Snell, the schmaltzy, surreal chronicle of Balso and the Trojan Horse. Another model is Charles Wright, one of the really authentic black experimentalists of the 1960s. In The Wig (1966), Wright presents a young black naif who swallows whole the American Dream. But in trying to convert his kinky black hair to the silken blond locks of the privileged Anglo-Saxon, he is destroyed. Reed's fictional satires have something of the same tone—a surface of sophomoric wisecracks and oversimplified comedy, beneath which lies the rage of a born moralist. Reed, however, is not interested in showing man's sin, but his ridiculousness.
He works principally through caricature: of types, movements, attitudes. He exaggerates and simplifies to reveal the absurdity of the world he describes, to suggest what America is "really" like when we strip away its rationalizing myths and self-justifying assumptions. Most satirists have the same aim—"to get us to see ourselves," as Sheldon Sacks says of Swift, "our institutions, our acts, from points of view which reveal to us the ridiculous inhumanity of our customs and the pathetic shoddiness of our ethical pretensions." The caricatures that Reed devises to get us to see this way develop into metaphors of wide scope and imaginative power. For example, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Reed anticipates the quaint rumor that Lyndon Johnson liked to carry on presidential business while sitting on the toilet. With customary exaggeration, Reed afflicts one of his central characters with a spectacular case of diarrhea. Harry Sam is the "democratically elected dictator" of the country HARRY SAM. The commode that he uses so much is his cathedral, decorated with diamonds and carved with figures of griffins and gargoyles, like Notre Dame.
But when Reed pictures a head of state sitting on a toilet, he sees much more than a head of state sitting on a toilet. Harry Sam's diarrhea is a symbol of America's obsession with power. This is the power to consume as well as to produce. Some call it America's greatness and point to our standard of living as proof. Reed makes us see it as a case of diarrhea, emphasizing devouring, digesting, defecating. He suggests it is a disgusting sickness, reflecting a consumption and waste cycle unprecedented in history.
The consumption that Reed ridicules is not only of commodities but of people. Reed takes Swift several steps further, showing that the earlier satirist's "modest proposal" has been accepted and implemented. "SAM's eating your children," cries one of Reed's characters. The sewage of Sam's waste is what is left of HARRY SAM citizens (mostly black) after Sam has devoured their labor, their time, their personal lives, their souls. It is pumped into the "Black Bay," now so contaminated that no one can swim in it and remain alive. The pollution of America does not come simply from the literal waste of industrial effluvia, says Reed. It also comes from the institutional power process in which the privileged and the powerful dine off the powerless and discard what is left over. (pp. 196-97)
The Free-Lance Pallbearers has a nerve-jangling speed to it that is appropriate to the urban world it depicts, in which things happen with a dreamlike swiftness and illogic. There is a flavor of apocalypse about it, of a civilization speeding out of control to its destruction, and in so doing recapitulating the inevitable fate of similar civilizations. The desire for power affects everyone. Bukka Doopeyduk, a clownish protagonist right out of A Cool Million or The Wig, begins as a docile innocent who patriotically worships all of Harry Sam's myths about hard work and its rewards, about individual initiative, middle-class respectability, and blacks keeping their place. But like the proof of a theorem in geometry, Bukka's experience leads him inexorably to the reality behind the moral posturing of his country's leaders. He changes from an earnest young man who wants to do right into a power-hungry fascist who overthrows Sam and assumes control. Reed's target is not only those blacks who, from their middle-class security, suddenly discovered the profit in black revolution and became as totalitarian as the whites they attacked; it is also the nature of human ways. Bukka is himself replaced by "the next on the civil service list" in a triumph of impersonal bureaucracy. No one in the story has the last word. That remains for the laughing, godlike author, observing all from his perch outside the system, for he sees that all systems are alike, all with an equal potential for oppression and injustice.
There are no soft edges to The Free-Lance Pallbearers. No one escapes ridicule and exposure…. (pp. 197-98)
Maybe all this results from the fact that this first fictional satire is Reed's most political book. It is full of allusions to Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, and the action itself involves government power and how one gets it and abuses it. In his next three books, Reed changes neither his satirical technique nor his picture of America as a country in which democracy is permanently under siege. He does, though, begin to develop a worldview based upon wider and wider reading—reading in American history, Egyptian mythology and religion, African and Caribbean magic and witchcraft, and black commentaries on blacks' experience in white America.
In the version of the modern experience that Reed constructs out of his reading, most of us have been victims of Western rationalism; that includes whites as well as blacks, and other people of color. Western rationalism has overthrown early man's practice of magic and worship of mystery, and consolidated its victory by associating the instinctual and spontaneous with everything that is evil. Through the Christian church and other organizations, it has killed off what is most vital in the healthy, living being—laughter, joy, singing, dancing. It has produced a dubious technology and created institutionalized creatures to serve it: "willess robots," children who are "docile" and "obedient," people who have been cut off from the sources of the natural power in themselves and their surroundings.
The point is to effect a return to those sources. In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), Reed works out his picture of modern times and the way we can escape the suffocation of the rationalism that is the foundation of the modern state and the society that serves it. The vehicle for our return is the Third World and the "colored" people that make it up, with their ties to prerationalist history, their alleged belief in the hidden powers of nature, and their respect for the mystery of the individual. The black person in particular is a special "carrier" of the ancient sensibility, the impulse to laugh and sing and admit the forces that support life.
The Afro-American artist is the most powerful liberator, for as Reed sees it, he is "similar to the Necromancer…. He is a conjuror who works JuJu upon his oppressors, a witch doctor who frees his fellow victims from the psychic attack launched by demons of the outer and inner world." The result of these psychic attacks is that the victim voluntarily represses his truest, pleasure-loving, spontaneous self. Thus he lives in a world characterized by "glumness, depression, surliness, cynicism, malice without artfulness." This describes the Western world, and its intellectuals admire only "heavy, serious works." A character in Mumbo Jumbo remarks that there is no "account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard."
In Reed's view, the black artist establishes his integrity by refusing to abide by these "gray" rationalist forms. He must, we assume, deconstruct the old genres and replace them with newer and livelier forms…. When he does, he becomes a demon in the eyes of the white rationalist, undermining the latter's old gods. By invoking his natural sense of humor, the black artist becomes a satanic threat to the holy tradition of humorless Western thought. Reed proclaims the potential of all black artists to be demons, to practice voodoo and witchcraft, and with the magic of their words and images to challenge the old Western gods. (pp. 198-99)
We cannot score Reed for taking on a task beneath his talents or limiting the fish he wants to catch in his net. He goes after the entire Western tradition and anyone who submits to it…. I like a man who doesn't underestimate his importance, but doubt nags me, especially about Reed's claims of necromantic power and control of a hoodoo aesthetic. For one who has such harsh words for Western rationalism, and such contempt for English teachers who take a scholarly approach to Milton, he seems very Western to me. True, he laces his writing with words like "voudon" and "hougan" and "loa," but it looks to me as if he has gotten much of that vocabulary from his reading. He is, after all, better educated than your average voodoo witch doctor. His invocation of Caribbean hoodoo seems more anthropological than practical, and I see his allusions to magic and writing to be metaphorical. For example, in Flight to Canada (1976), Raven Quickskill says that "a man's story is his gris-gris." Surely this is only sophisticated analogy, as Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is high rather than folk art. Indeed, while Reed urges replacement of rationalism with magic and intuition, his own style takes its strength directly from rationalism. His metaphors sway us not because they appeal to our passion or emotion but because they please our intellect. They are not in the slightest incantatory, and produce no altered states. We are delighted by the inventiveness with which Reed yokes together the unexpected, but it is an intellectual delight, similar to what generations of John Donne readers have felt when they are drawn into an effective metaphysical conceit.
As a white Western rationalist myself, I feel a little badly treated by Reed. It may be that Reed is attacking only one or two strains in the Western tradition. But it comes off as a blanket indictment, as if there were no mystery or emotion in the West, no St. Francis or St. Theresa, no mystical poetry. Reed employs the same techniques he accuses the Western rationalists of using, guilt by association. Reed labels as fraud any attempt by the Western mind to uncover some of the forces he celebrates. Only the properly initiated are authentic. Nor can I accept an unqualified rejection of rationalism. The truth that rises from the "possessed" can no more guarantee completeness than the truth that rises from rational observation and inference. If it is true that the Western mind has swung excessively toward rationalist scientific empiricism, we do no service to the species by swinging excessively to the other extreme.
But a satirist who writes with an ax rather than a scalpel will inevitably destroy a few innocent cells unintentionally. And that may be the case with Reed. He quotes Muhammad Ali for his own raison d'écrire: "Writing is fighting." He is fighting a system that measures up neither to its promises nor to his expectations of it. The focus of his anger is that system's refusal to acknowledge him and the culture he identifies with…. [Reed speaks] for all unrecognized but important cultural elements of America, but his real constituency is the black American male. That, for Reed, is the truly oppressed class in America, "the most exploited and feared class" in the country. He and his Afro-American brothers are under siege, alone, pariahs not only to the white males that dominate America but also to the black female who conspires with white males to suppress the black man's energy, and to the black males in other countries. From behind the barricades, Reed tries to protect what is his and force his country to expand its cultural tolerance and recognize what is already there.
In his fiction, Reed does not aim to create great characters or probe the human psyche. All he wants to do is rewrite history and change America. Stylistically, all his books sound alike. They are pastiches of real and invented people doing real and invented things. They are Mad Comics, Doonesbury, Monty Python, Max Schulman, Ornette Coleman, John Cage, the Encyclopedia Britannica all mixed up together within one frame of reference. And if his satires sound alike, they seldom fail to disclose a new dimension to America or to provoke us with a reading of history that reverses everything we have accepted as true. Reed may outrage us, but he makes us see in different ways. With a virtually unlimited reservoir of revealing metaphors, he seeks to shame us out of our complacency and hypocrisy. That is what a satirist should do, and Reed is one of the best satirists around. (pp. 200-02)
Jerry H. Bryant, "Old Gods and New Demons—Ishmael Reed and His Fiction," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 195-202.
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