John A. Williams’s novels draw on personal experience, though they are not strictly autobiographical; they reflect the racial issues facing American society, especially during the civil rights period. Williams writes in the clear, readable prose of a journalist; his plot structures mix linear time with flashback passages to achieve a seamless continuity. His characters have been writers, jazz musicians, black mothers, and military veterans, and his themes have addressed the hardships of the black writer, the expatriate in Europe, black family life, interracial relationships, and political conspiracy. The presentation of jazz is a frequent element, and New York City is a repeated setting, though Williams has also depicted the Caribbean and Africa.
The Angry Ones
Williams’s initial novel is a first-personnarrative drawing on autobiographical elements. Like Williams, Stephen Hill, the African American main character, is a World War II veteran, who works for a vanity press in New York. Early in the novel, Williams refers to African and Native American origins and jazz contexts. The novel is principally about Steve’s relationships with his employer, coworkers, and friends. One of Steve’s closest associates is Linton Mason, a white former college mate and editor at McGraw-Hill. The novel uses Lint’s success in publishing to indicate the racial divide, sexual jealousy, and the benefits of being white in racist America. Another theme is the search for a meaningful relationship, the choice between interracial and intraracial love. The causes of black anger are linked to Steve’s frustrating attempts to rise within the company run by Rollie Culver and, generally, the treatment of black men in New York’s publishing world, symbolized by the suicide of Steve’s black friend, Obie Roberts. The novel presents racism through the day-to-day experiences of the main character.
Set in Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1950’s, Night Song is a jazz novel that mirrors the life of famed alto saxophonist Charlie Parker through the portrayal of Eagle (Richie Stokes), a drug-addicted musician who retains the capabilities of jazz performance despite his debilitation. Eagle befriends the alcoholic David Hillary, an out-of-work white college professor employed in the jazz café run by Keel Robinson, a former black preacher and Harvard graduate involved in an interracial relationship with Della. Each of the characters is fractured, most notably Eagle, whose alcoholism and addiction are implicitly the result of the racist treatment of the black artist. Williams portrays David as a savior and betrayer of Eagle; David’s “healing” is the ironic result of his association with Eagle, Keel, and Della.
Titled for the mother of two principal characters, Iris and Ralph, Sissie is divided into four parts. Through memories, the novel presents the stories of Iris, Ralph, and Sissie Joplin, with Sissie’s history revealed in parts 3 and 4, resulting in a Joplin family saga. Iris’s story—her failed marriage, her career in Europe, and her relationship with the jazz musician called Time—is the first extended flashback. Ralph’s recollections—his experiences in the service, his struggle as a writer in New York—are presented through psychoanalysis, a device that reveals racial issues from the viewpoint of a white psychologist, a symbol of societal norms. Sissie Joplin, a matriarchal figure, has an affair that threatens the stability of her marriage, which undergoes numerous challenges, such as the difficulty of surviving economic hard times and the struggle to find personal fulfillment through love. Sissie is ultimately the catalyst for Ralph and Iris’s recognition of their family’s conflicted yet sustaining experiences.
The Man Who Cried I Am
Williams’s best-received and perhaps most influential work, The Man Who Cried I Am revolves around Max Reddick, an African American writer reunited in Amsterdam with his Dutch former wife, Margrit. Williams presents, within a twenty-four-hour time period, the downward spiral of Reddick, a Chester Himes figure, who is suffering from colon cancer. Through flashbacks, Reddick’s recollections of a thirty-year past present the social experience of black Americans through the civil rights era. The novel portrays Reddick’s association with Harry Ames, a character based on black novelist Richard Wright, who has uncovered the King Alfred Plan, a plot to place America’s black population in concentration camps. Other characters in the novel also resemble actual black writers or political figures, such as Marion Dawes, a James Baldwin type; Paul Durrell, a Martin Luther King, Jr., replica; and Minister Q, a Malcolm X parallel. Furthermore, Williams develops African characters, such as Jaja Enzkwu, who reveals the King Alfred Plan to Harry Ames. The involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Reddick’s death points to an international conspiracy against black people, demonstrating Williams’s tragic vision of global race relations.
An exploration of black contributions in American wars, this novel employs a narrative strategy in which time is fluid. At the outset, Captain Blackman, a soldier in the Vietnam War who teaches his troops the history of black Americans in the military, is wounded and trapped by the Viet Cong. His hallucinations are used to develop scenes in various American wars, from the American Revolution through Vietnam. In these settings, Blackman experiences battle and the racial circumstances affecting black troops. The novel mixes fictional characterizations with historical fact, as in the reference to the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolution. Williams portrays a possible nuclear Armageddon in which black people become the forces of control, though the reversal of power from black to white is itself part of the dream visions of Blackman.
Considered by Williams at the time to be the novel in which he achieved the most effective coalescence of his literary intentions, !Click Song, titled after a vocal sound found in the Xhosa language of South Africa, parallels two writers, one black, the other white and Jewish. Using flashbacks, manipulating linear time, the narrative develops the literary careers of Cato Douglass and Paul Cummings. Divided into three sections, “Beginnings,” “Middle,” and “Endings,” !Click Song uses the first-person narrator, Cato, as a representation of the journey of the black American writer. Beginning with the funeral of Paul, who committed suicide, the novel returns to the undergraduate experiences of the two veterans pursuing creative writing, circumstances that suggest the author’s biography. Parallels to Williams’s life are inescapable, especially in the treatment of Cato’s career. However, Williams goes beyond mere autobiography by using Cato to symbolize the black artist who resists cultural falsehood, as in the closing section in which Cato in the 1960’s offers a countertext to the withholding of information about black culture by major museums.
Jacob’s Ladder explores the predicament of an African American military attaché, Jacob Henry (Jake), caught in the turmoil of American destabilizing efforts in Pandemi, a fictitious West African country, where he had spent part of his youth as the son of a black American missionary. Resembling Liberia, Pandemi is ruled by Chuma Fasseke, Jake’s childhood friend. The government of Chuma Fasseke has replaced that of the Franklins, a family descended from nineteenth century repatriated African Americans. The novel also offers a parallel to Nigeria in the portrayal of Taiwo Shaguri, the head of state of Temian. Containing elements of an espionage thriller, Jacob’s Ladder proposes that an African country can attain nuclear capabilities. Williams humanizes Jake and Fasseke, creating a work deeper than clandestine intrigue. The final sections describe the fall of Fasseke and the takeover of the nuclear power plant by his opposition, assisted by the CIA. The epilogue uses the ironic device of the press release to show the perspective of the international press.
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