Nathan McCall Criticism - Essay

Paul Ruffins (review date 6 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Crucible of Violence," in Book World—The Washington Post, February 6, 1994, p. 2.

[In the following review, Ruffins praises McCall's autobiography for its honest attempt at helping other African-American men with similar backgrounds and beliefs to understand their own rational and emotional needs.]

I've-been-to-prison books are always bridges. Some, like Monster by gangsta' celebrity Monster Kody Scott, span the gulf between the reader's world and life in the deadliest gangs or toughest prisons. But in more important works such as Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler, pris-on is the midpoint in the writer's journey between crime and enlightenment.

In Autobiography of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice or George Jackson's Soledad Brother, it is the stature of the author that lends significance to the memoir; the junkie/convict evolves into the revolutionary hero or martyred saint. Why then, is Holler a real contribution to this honorable genre, since McCall, a Washington Post reporter who once served time for armed robbery, is not a true gangster, revolutionary or saint? Because McCall's evolution from angry thug to edgy black professional is much more relevant to most people's lives. He not only constitutes a bridge from Manchild in the Promised Land to The Rage of the Privileged Class, but in the process he helps answer some important questions: What was he thinking about when he shot that guy? How come so many black men don't live with their children? Why do so many black professionals have ulcers?

Though McCall, 39, grew up in a pleasant section of Portsmouth, Va., he deeply experienced the internalized wounds of race. Seeing a photograph of their grandmother warmly and sincerely smiling at the two white boys she cared for as a domestic, McCall and his brothers were pierced by the realization that she never seemed that loving when she was with them.

From McCall's adolescent perspective none of the honest, overworked older black people got any respect, only hustlers got respect. A good student traumatized by a racist school, he captures the aching to be cool that enslaves so many teens to peer pressure. "Alone I was afraid of the world and insecure," he writes. "But I felt cockier and surer of myself when hanging with my boys … We did things in groups that we'd never try alone. The group also gave me a sense of belonging that I'd never known before. With those guys I could hide in the crowd and feel like the accepted norm. There was no fear of standing out, feeling vulnerable, exiled and exposed. That was a comfort even my family couldn't provide."

McCall's world was ruled by the impulses of young men as if there was no option but to...

(The entire section is 1167 words.)

Adam Hochschild (review date 27 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Furious Man," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, pp. 11-12.

[Hochschild is an American writer, critic, and editor. In the following review, he contends that McCall's anger towards racial inequality and prejudice has negatively affected the focus and tone of his autobiography.]

The social crisis in this country's black community is so catastrophic that we listen urgently to any new voice for explanations. Nathan McCall's angry memoir, which takes its name from a song by Marvin Gaye, does not directly offer any. But obliquely it is a chilling commentary on where the problem is usually located: in aging, job-poor inner cities, filled with single mothers and abandoned by the black middle class. For in Portsmouth, Va., Mr. McCall grew up in an intact, stable family with a stepfather who always had a job, in precisely the kind of neighborhood of lawns and single-family homes that better-off inner-city blacks have moved to. At the time the McCalls moved there in 1964, when Nathan was 9 years old, it was the kind of close-knit community where one's parents and schoolteachers went to the same church. Why, even here, did Mr. McCall and most of his male friends end up in a maelstrom of drugs, gangs and jail? This is the question implicitly posed but not really answered by Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.

Mr. McCall's adolescence was filled with macho posturing, street crime and the beating of white people unlucky enough to wander into the neighborhood. Then in 1975 he landed in a Virginia prison, where he served three years for the armed robbery of a McDonald's. Earlier, in a grudge shoot-out, he had almost killed someone, although for that he drew only a few days' jail time. ("I guess it's an indication of how they felt about the value of black life that I wasn't even required to post bond.")

The most painful parts of the book to read are Mr. McCall's accounts of the many gang rapes of black teenage girls that he took part in. With these, as with the fratricidal gang fighting, he makes clear that the driving force was group membership: "Alone, I was afraid of the world and insecure. But I felt cockier and surer of myself when hanging with my boys…. We did things in groups that we'd never try alone."

The reader of Makes Me Wanna Holler is torn by three conflicting feelings. One is a horrified fascination at being taken, with uncompromising candor, inside the head of just the kind of violent criminal everyone fears most. Another is respect for the enormous willpower it took for Mr. McCall to climb out of that life: after prison, he worked his way through college and up the job ladder to become a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, since 1989, The Washington Post. The third feeling is a mounting exasperation at the way Mr. McCall blames the white world for almost everything he suffers.

(The entire section is 1656 words.)

Gene Lyons (review date 4 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Living Color," in Entertainment Weekly, No. 212, March 4, 1994, pp. 56-57.

[Lyons is an American essayist, reviewer, and nonfiction writer. In the following review, he argues that McCall's autobiography, although valid and moving, is ultimately dissatisfactory in its examination of McCall and its other black characters.]

Many are the perils of autobiography. Seemingly the simplest form of storytelling, it tempts the unwary author with that most seductive narcotic: the first-person singular. Tricky enough in the hands of a literary sophisticate like James Baldwin or Philip Roth, the urge to turn one's life into narrative can easily lead less gifted authors...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (review date 7 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bad Influence," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 3, March 7, 1994, pp. 94-8.

[Gates is an American reviewer, editor, and educator known for his many contributions to the study of black literature. In the following review, he explores the place of McCall's autobiography in the existing canon of African-American literature.]

In the course of a spectacularly uneven career, Richard Wright, the first black writer to earn a living by his pen, created two indelible characters. The first was Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son. Young, black, and poor—and victimized by a series of events beyond his control or comprehension—Bigger ends up killing...

(The entire section is 4293 words.)