The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt represents a departure in characterization for Reed, whose protagonists are usually close to his own point of view. Puttbutt is very nearly Reed’s opposite in many areas: a conservative from a military family, opposed to multiculturalism, defending Western cultural values. Reed builds up readers’ sympathy for Puttbutt by making him the underdog but then undermines that sympathy when Puttbutt gains power. Puttbutt’s pacifism, which arises partly from chafing at the role his parents have chosen for him and partly from shock at his lover’s suicide while he is at the Air Force Academy, is shown to be mere capitulation to whoever is in power. The most subtly drawn of the characters in the novel, Puttbutt changes during the course of the book, learning how to rise above cultural parochialism. Nevertheless, the story leaves him just at the point of discovery of his limitations: His future is left open to question.

Ishmael Reed, the author appearing as a character in the novel, serves as a foil to Puttbutt—or vice versa. Their opposition is not antagonistic: Both are African American men of letters, both have been attacked by feminist groups, both are studying difficult foreign languages. Yet the differences are telling, and crucial to the plot: Reed has staked his career on a multicultural philosophy that Puttbutt has opposed as a threat to Western cultural values.

Dr. Yamato, who is first seen simply as Puttbutt’s Japanese instructor, is something of a...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt III

Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt III, named for two of the most celebrated African American soldiers in the history of the United States by his father, who is a high-ranking career Army man. He is approaching middle age as an untenured faculty member at a large public college. To advance his career, he has chosen a neoconservative academic position and a pacifist approach to conflict; both stances are at odds with his inner nature and upbringing. By rejecting the black consciousness of the 1960’s and by choosing to study Japanese to be in touch with the latest trends in global power flows, Puttbutt has denied so much of what he instinctively feels that he has essentially lost any true center of being. He recognizes that he is a loner, sees himself as a survivor, and is pleased that he is capable of resisting his impulses to retaliate with justification when he is insulted, belittled, betrayed, or scorned. His endless rationalizations are an indication that all of his posturing has failed to satisfy some fundamental human needs. Although he is often the focus of the author’s satire, with his shifting and calculating, he has an instinctive decency, a very able mind, a solid grasp of his discipline, and a reflective temperament that make him a sympathetic character as well. He stands for the African American man who is forced to adjust to the social realities of late twentieth century America and the weight of American history while attempting to maintain some sense of integrity and self-respect.

Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed, who is described as a “modest merchant” who provides “quality literature and videodramas” for society. He is a middle-aged African American writer, community activist, and social critic resembling the author of the novel in many...

(The entire section is 752 words.)