Richard Perry’s second novel, Montgomery’s Children, a multifaceted exploration of black experience in a small upstate New York community, addresses a complex of issues central to the developing dialogue among contemporary Afro-American novelists. Like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and David Bradley, Perry perceives a serious threat to the integrity of the Afro-American tradition and attempts to recover or rediscover modes of perception capable of resisting the social and psychological failures of the American mainstream. Where most of his contemporaries offer at least tentative hope that such resistance may succeed, however, Perry remains profoundly doubtful that any transformed vision can be brought to bear on the problems of the community once it has been transplanted to the North from its Southern origins. Although myths rooted in Southern experience and the African continuum may provide momentary respite for individuals, the encompassing failure of personal communication, especially between men and women, leads Perry to question not only the celebratory vision of Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) but also the ambivalent optimism of Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1980).
Set in a predominantly white community which undergoes the transition from rural town to small city between 1948 and 1980, Montgomery’s Children focuses on a group of Afro-Americans who, disillusioned by their experiences in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newark after leaving the South, settle in Montgomery because it fulfills their three primary requirements: “that it be rural, that it be northern, and that it have jobs.” To begin with, Montgomery provides an idyllic setting; prior to 1948, no black resident, for reasons partly practical and partly theological, has died. By 1980, however, all sense of community cohesion, both within and between races, has collapsed. A large number of blacks die violent and/or accident-related deaths; the younger generation has turned to drugs; interracial dating disturbs both black and white parents; older blacks feel as distant from their children and grandchildren as from whites. Against this historical backdrop, Perry sets in motion a large group of characters, including Norman Fillis, who recaptures aspects of the African tradition but, unable to accept family responsibility and viewed as insane by the community, cannot pass his knowledge on to the younger generation; Gerald Fletcher, a member of the younger generation ultimately incapable of fulfilling his potential for personal and cultural development; Hosea and Meredith Malone, whose alienation typifies male-female relationships in Montgomery and contributes to an accelerating cycle of violence; and Josey Moore, who as an incest victim and convicted murderer provides an emblem of the meaning of physical and social deformity. In addition, Perry sketches at least a dozen other characters, most of them members of the Fletcher, Moore, and Malone families. Intended to add scope to Perry’s historical meditation, this large cast in fact constitutes the central problem of Montgomery’s Children. Able to grant only limited attention to each of his conceptually significant characters, Perry glosses over complex psychological dilemmas and transformations, such as those associated with Gerald’s marriage and Meredith’s repression of the knowledge that she has murdered her infant son. Without the fully rounded individual characterizations provided by Bradley and Morrison, Perry’s explorations of alternative perspectives on similar issues seem somewhat abstract and unconvincing, effectively subverting his implicit challenge to the reader to assume responsibility for interpretation of the novel’s events.
Whatever the limitations of its realization, Perry’s treatment of the tension between the decaying community and Norman’s alternative vision provides an intriguing center of attention. Viewed by most of the community as a harmless madman who is periodically in need of institutionalization, Norman preaches of “the miracle of flight and the properties of fire,” hoping to pass his knowledge on to Gerald, who has a mole in his eye which, Norman believes, marks him as Norman’s spiritual heir. For Norman, fire represents the heritage of black suffering, especially at the hands of lynch mobs, a heritage increasingly alien to a younger generation immersed in white society’s version of normalcy. Alongside this suffering, Norman envisions a heritage of flight, drawing on the mythological image of the Flying African—also invoked by Morrison and Bradley—whose refusal to accept Euro-American reality enables him to transcend the fire without denying its reality. Refusing to accept technological or economic progress as normal or desirable, Norman immerses himself in nature to warn the forest animals that their habitat will be destroyed to make way for a racetrack, and ultimately he learns to fly himself, providing a powerful image of...
(The entire section is 2077 words.)