Linden Hills, Gloria Naylor’s second novel, is, in some ways, a sequel to her first, The Women of Brewster Place, for which she won the American Book Award for First Fiction in 1982. (In paperback, both novels have appeared in Penguin’s prizewinning Contemporary American Fiction Series.) The neighborhood of Linden Hills plays a significant role in the earlier novel; it is the place to which many residents of the Brewster Place project aspire, the reward awaiting those who work hard and fast enough to reap it here on Earth. Even in the first novel, Naylor suggests, however, that Linden Hills is not exactly the place her less privileged characters imagine it to be.
In The Women of Brewster Place, a young woman, Kiswana Browne, leaves her parents’ secure Linden Hills home, moves into Brewster Place, and begins working as a black activist. While such a downward move mystifies her parents and many of her Brewster Place neighbors, Kiswana is Naylor’s foreshadowing of the secrets to be unraveled in the second novel. In Linden Hills, Kiswana comes to the home of the would-be poet Lester, seeking clothing donations for the Liberation Front in Zimbabwe. When Lester’s upwardly mobile, Wellesley-educated sister, Roxanne, tells Kiswana that Zimbabwens are not ready for independence and therefore Linden Hills blacks should not support the liberation cause, Kiswana’s stunned reaction is one spur to Lester’s own feelings that Linden Hills is a hell instead of the heaven most of its residents and, more important, most of those who aspire to be residents believe it to be.
A major difference between Naylor’s two novels is that Linden Hills focuses on male characters. In the first novel, as its title suggests, Naylor was primarily concerned with female characters, and although the plight of black women is not ignored in the second book, the plot revolves around the struggle of Lester and his best friend, Willie, to make sense of the world of Linden Hills. Because that world is controlled by another man, Luther Nedeed, and because he is almost obsessively protective of the mystique that his empire has acquired over the 150 years since his great-great-grandfather, the first Luther Nedeed, came to the area, settled with a light-skinned bride, and began the Nedeed rise to economic and political power, Linden Hills becomes a classic story of good and innocence versus evil and experience.
The classical overtones of the novel are reinforced by Naylor’s having structured her story, quite self-consciously, along the lines of Dante’s Inferno. Because Linden Hills is built on the side of a very steep plateau, its streets wind and spiral from the top of the neighborhood, where Lester lives with his mother and his sister, down through increasingly luxurious accommodations, culminating, at the bottom, in the ultimate status of Tupelo Drive, home of Luther Nedeed himself. Thus, as Lester and Willie spend the week before Christmas doing odd jobs for customers whose wealth increases the lower they move down the incline, their “journey” approximates the descent into Hell, with Nedeed’s home, surrounded by a lake, protected by a drawbridge, and backed up against a cemetery, representing Hell itself. (Despite the obvious parallels and the mythic weight Naylor’s story gains from the connection to Dante, it should be noted, the reader of Linden Hills need not be an expert on the Inferno to appreciate the hellish quality of Nedeed’s empire or to recognize Nedeed as a devil incarnate.)
One of Naylor’s “travelers,” Lester, the native, has grown up with his poet’s soul tormented by the hypocrisy and materialism that rule his community, but as Willie rightly points out to him, he has also quite willingly accepted the security and comfort of that world. Lester is skeptical about the values of Linden Hills, but not skeptical enough to leave and risk life in the harsher outside world. By teaming Lester with Willie, the other “traveler,” Naylor not only makes the reader dubious about the depth of Lester’s negative feelings but also contrasts him with a character who has experienced the longing to make it to Linden Hills. Willie, a dropout after ninth grade and a drifter sprung from a home crowded and explosive with tension and violence that come from a man’s not being able to provide for his family and not being able to stop squandering what little he does have on drink to ease the guilt of his failure, has taken the risk Lester has not. He lives on his own in a cold, spare room where the idea of Linden Hills seems much less repugnant than it does to his friend in the warm comfort of his home, with its stereo system and its always-loaded dinner table. Together, they make reliable seekers.
They had met in the seventh grade, when Willie had helped Lester in a fight with an older boy. That was the genesis of the relationship, but its lasting value springs from their shared love of poetry, a passion they revealed to each other, with much embarrassment and trepidation, as junior high students. Naylor explains their bond this way: “Bloody noses had made them friends, but giving sound to the bruised places in their hearts made them brothers.” Thus, even after Willie dropped out of school, the two have stayed in touch and exchanged verses—Lester’s written, and Willie’s alive only in his head and recited to his friend from memory.
Because poetry is an unmarketable commodity in the world in which these men live, they find themselves doing odd jobs, scrounging for whatever dollars they can earn without selling out. To them, retaining the soul of the poet is more important than possessing material wealth. Still, Willie at least suspects that there will be some ultimate dissatisfaction in being a gray-haired grocery boy who happens to be able to recite a thousand verses. Consciously or unconsciously, both Lester and Willie are hovering on the brink of manhood, looking for the experience that will remove them forever from their somewhat boyish and romantic view of themselves and their world.
The novel’s structure is episodic in that the people Lester and Willie meet appear only in the chapter of the novel where a job is being performed for them by the two friends. The only other character who appears throughout is Luther Nedeed, whose presence is increasingly felt by the two young men as they move closer and closer to Tupelo Drive and his home.
The first episode in their journey takes place on December 19th, when the two long-time friends meet on the street during the coldest weather of the year. While they stand talking on the wintry street, they meet Norman and Ruth Anderson, who invite them to their apartment for warmth and coffee. Norman is a good, hardworking man who finds himself possessed every third spring by mental demons that he calls “the pinks.” When they attack, Norman loses his job, and he and Ruth must live off the money they have managed to save during his safe time, only to begin the struggle to save again when Norman is well enough to get another job. Ruth, a defector from Linden Hills after six months of unhappy marriage to one of its residents, is the one who suggests to Lester and Willie that they might be able to pick up some money for Christmas by doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. She even volunteers to make contacts for them.
The Andersons represent, from the very beginning of the novel, an alternative to the corruption and sterility Willie and Lester will find in Linden Hills. Ruth, an informed source, suggests that turning one’s back on that world is the only way to have a chance at happiness. The fact that her happiness comes at such an enormous cost, what with the personal demons that torment Norman, indicates that life outside Linden Hills cannot be idealized as simple and undemanding. The Anderson apartment is as devoid of material objects as a home can be. Because the pinks cause Norman to be self-destructive, any object that he might use to hurt himself has been eliminated from their lives. The coffee must be served in Styrofoam cups that Ruth washes and reuses in order to boost their savings in preparation for the inevitable fall from peace. In addition, after years of experience, Ruth has stopped replacing furniture and other items most people would consider essential.
Thus, the Andersons provide for Willie and Lester a model of true love, content in and of itself, not connected to ambition or wealth. Ruth stays with Norman despite the strain of the bad times, because once, when she was prepared to leave him, unable to bear the pressure any longer, he brought to her an aspirin and a glass of water to comfort her—even though at that very moment the onset of the pinks was causing him almost unbearable pain. Their mutual sacrifice, typified by the aspirin incident, serves as Naylor’s counter to the horrible acquisitiveness in Linden Hills.
When Ruth arranges for them to work early the next day, Willie agrees to spend the night in Lester’s home, a plot device that allows him to see Linden...
(The entire section is 3734 words.)