No Other Tale to Tell

Richard Perry’s No Other Tale to Tell is set in what readers are coming to recognize as Richard Perry country. Like his fine, underappreciated earlier novel, Montgomery’s Children, No Other Tale to Tell explores the lives and stories—the stories they live, the stories they tell, and the stories they are in danger of forgetting—of the members of an African American community in upstate New York. The setting is relatively uncommon in African American fiction, and Perry is in the process of making it his own, as Ernest J. Gaines has done for rural southern Louisiana. Perry’s choice allows him to work at least one remove from the dominant themes of more militant, politically oriented African American fiction, often set in the South or in the northern ghetto. While by no means insensitive to such concerns, Perry explores a range of experience that is not ultimately reducible to issues, however urgent.

If readers are in Perry country, they are also in Perry’s hands, the hands of an artist who demonstrates increasing mastery of his means and of the implications of those means. In the manner of magical realism, Perry deliberately and provocatively blurs the lines between the factual and the fabulous. His novels are set in real places; the interested reader can visit Kingston or Montgomery. They allude to actual historical events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the rise of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. The characters act out of recognizable human motives. Yet these same characters may have powers that cannot be accounted for within the framework of causality that readers associate with literary realism. In Montgomery’s Children, Norman Fillis discovers that he can fly. In No Other Tale to Tell, Junkman develops supranormal powers of smell. In both novels, the immediate effect of this departure from the conventions of realism is an awakening of the reader’s sense of wonder, and an ultimate effect is an interrogation of one’s ordinary sense of reality. Along the way, Perry artfully exploits the metaphorical and symbolic possibilities of these departures from the norm. Perry’s actors and their actions often take readers by surprise, but his art is that the surprising is made convincing.

Although there were black people in Kingston before 1869, the origin of the city’s black community may conveniently and symbolically be traced to that year. That this definition of origins does not quite fit the facts is indeed part of the symbolism: reality, for Perry, has a way of escaping people’s attempts to formulate it neatly. At any rate, in 1869 a group of fifty-four black men and women traveled from Canada, haven shortly before of runaway slaves, to Kingston. Their dying leader was one Joseph Drake, who had, ironically, completely forgotten his own origins; he had named himself for a family of ducks that happened to cross his path. That the originator of the community had no knowledge of his own origins is itself a significant element in the novel’s symbolic texture.

Before he died, Drake uttered a prophecy: His followers were a chosen people (God could certainly afford two) from whom would emerge a child of God in whose presence the community would flourish. The prophecy simply popped into the dying man’s head, and almost as soon as he uttered it, he began to doubt that anyone ought to believe it. It seemed to please his followers, however, and he could not bring himself to spoil their pleasure. In fact, some of the followers had their doubts as well, but were unwilling to argue with a dying man.

This is the flawed prophecy that has given the black community of Kingston a sense of themselves as somehow special, a kind of communal self-esteem that might have many positive effects. What happens if the flaws become too evident? One way of reading this novel is as a narrative answer to that question.

The story of the prophecy emerges gradually in the course of the narrative; readers are approximately halfway through the novel by the time they have the whole of it. The novel itself begins in 1966. Clara March, a black woman in her early forties who lives with her son Phoenix, physically a man in his twenties, mentally an infant, and clearly the product of Clara’s relationship with a white man, enters tentatively on a relationships with Miles, a slightly younger black man, who is himself recovering from the scars of a failed marriage. Clara carries scars of her own. Physically, she is scarred from a fire that occurred when she was in her teens, and Phoenix, not yet named, was an infant. To a significant degree, the narrative movement of the first half of the novel is back to that catastrophic event. Like Miles, Clara also carries emotional scars, part cause and part effect of what has been a troubled emotional life, including a series of meaningless sexual encounters. Her partners have been both black and white, but only with white men has she...

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