Sonny tells his own story, using a mostly limited point of view that mirrors his attitude at a particular age. For example, young Sonny’s explanation to his little brother Pimp of how to recognize a Jew or a “cracker” shows that he really does not know but will not admit it: “That’s easy. Just ask me. I’ll tell you what they is.” Later, when he is sent to Wiltwyck School, Sonny asks to see the director but is shuttled to an assistant instead. “I knew he couldn’t help me,” Sonny thinks. “He was colored. What could he do for anybody?”
Sonny views his parents with chagrin as backward Southerners. His mother has only a fifth-grade education, his father one year less. Both mistrust words, play the numbers, and believe in the importance of a steady job over dreams. Both, moreover, become meek in the presence of white authority, a fact that Sonny hates.
His mother cannot understand her sons or the street life that Sonny prefers, and she fears for them. Religion offers her some consolation; when Sonny is shot in the stomach, she prays at his bedside. On the other hand, Sonny’s father is either violent or indifferent, and on weekends he disappears entirely to seek refuge in alcohol and women. Before Sonny is sent to Wiltwyck, his father plays a shell game with him, warning, “That’s jis what you been doin’ all your life, lookin’ for a pea that ain’t there.” It is the only bit of fatherly advice that Sonny remembers. Eventually, they do not talk at all.
The book is episodic, a vast canvas as diverse and richly peopled as the Harlem of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Brown builds his characters by accretion of details, beginning with a brief...
(The entire section is 693 words.)