The Messenger Summary
by Charles Wright

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The Messenger Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Messenger is the autobiographical first-person narrative of Charlie, a lonely man. The novel is episodic. Each of its forty short, loosely connected chapters recalls an incident from Charlie’s past or describes in graphic detail his current situation as a promising writer who makes a meager living as a messenger for Wall Street brokers. In a style that is at times spare and reportorial, and at other times highly lyrical and expressionistic, Charles Wright portrays this young man’s slide toward an increasing sense of hopelessness and despair in the segregated borough of Manhattan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. “I grow old in the terrible heart of America,” Charlie writes. “I am dying the American-money death.”

A number of chapters are devoted to memories of Charlie’s childhood in Sedalia, a small Missouri town where he was cared for, primarily, by his maternal grandmother. Other chapters are devoted to memories of his quest for greater experiences in the big cities of the Midwest and California, and to memories of his visit to his hometown in 1958, the year his maternal grandmother died. The majority of the novel, however, is devoted to Charlie’s descriptions of his travels through the underbelly of Manhattan, where he encounters gay men, drug addicts, transvestites, prostitutes, and con artists.

Many of the New York City chapters present accounts of Charlie’s often-humiliating experiences of cruising bars and Wall Street offices trying to find his own sexual pleasure with men or women, or to offer sex in exchange for money to supplement his meager income. His day job as a messenger allows him entrance into worlds from which his skin color might otherwise exclude him. His “tricks” include a wealthy white woman who takes Charlie back to her home in Long Island, a male Wall Street stockbroker who telephones his wife before taking Charlie to an abandoned office, and a male Ivy League student with a clubfoot who wants Charlie to “hurt [him] a little” in order to achieve sexual pleasure.

Charlie’s experiences with alcohol, pills, and loveless sex among strangers cause him to feel despondent, sometimes to the point of madness. He attempts to transcend the pain of his life in a number of ways. Charlie finds some comfort by remembering aspects of a more idyllic past, when he lived with his grandparents in Missouri. He also recovers buried religious feelings when he hears gospel singing at The Holiness Sundown Church. “Somewhere there was such a thing as peace of mind and goodness,” he thinks. Charlie finds his main comfort from visiting friends such as Claudia, a male transvestite whose energy and optimism lift Charlie out of his despair, and Maxine, a little girl whose artistic impulses Charlie encourages.

Charlie also is able to make sense out of his life by reading great literature. He compares his situation to Quentin Compson’s in The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel by William Faulkner. Like Faulkner’s character, Charlie considers himself to be at the end of a family line. Charlie also finds pleasure through an appreciation of art and music, particularly through listening to jazz and to the blues singing of Billie Holiday. Charlie’s aesthetic sensibility and his keen use of poetic language and metaphor allow him, in a number of beautifully written chapters, to describe even the drab streets of New York City on a lonely Sunday morning as possessing a quiet power that touches on his religious impulses:Toward the east a ballet of soft, white clouds. The rising sun breaks through shafts of gold. It was as if God had suddenly opened His powerful hand on the world. My heart bows its head in the presence of this force. I am suddenly at peace in this early morning. The sun comforts me; I am swaddled in the folds of those wonderful clouds. Let the rays of the sun touch your body and you will be made holy.

Although the decadence of life in the city has become a part of him, Charlie dreams of an...

(The entire section is 1,042 words.)