On May 13, 1985, in West Philadelphia, after bullets, water cannon and high explosives had failed to dislodge the occupants of 6221 Osage Avenue, a bomb was dropped from a state police helicopter and exploded atop the besieged row house. In the ensuing fire fifty-three houses were destroyed, 262 people left homeless. The occupants of the row house on Osage were said to be members of an organization called MOVE. Eleven of them, six adults and five children, were killed in the assault that commenced when they refused to obey a police order to leave their home. A grand jury subsequently determined that no criminal charges should be brought against the public officials who planned and perpetrated the assault.
The conflagration on Osage Street is the literal fire of John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire; it is a metaphor for the destruction of the social fabric that this novel presents. Wideman has elsewhere declared himself a pessimist; the vision he presents in Philadelphia Fire is an extremely dark one.
Cudjoe, the protagonist of much of the novel, is an expatriate African-American novelist who has lived on Mykonos for several years. Driven into looking for the “story of a fire and a lost boy,” he returns to Philadelphia, his hometown. Yet his quest is also for a city that might allow people to live in “brotherly love.” What he finds are the fragments of a civilization: alienation, squalor, violence, and the total absence of innocence—a city of “brothelly love.”
Cudjoe’s initial search is for a child, called Simba Muntu, “the Lion,” who supposedly ran, burning, from the house on Osage Street, the lone survivor of the bombing. He interviews a former member of MOVE, Margaret Jones, who recalls the fascinated revulsion she felt for King, also known as John Africa, the leader of the group. Despite his excesses, she says, he spoke the truth; “he’s right even if he did things wrong sometimes, he’s still right cause ain’t nothing, nowhere any better.”
MOVE offered an Edenic, if dirty, island for one trying to stay alive in a hostile ocean. Yet the ocean inevitably swept the island away. Margaret knew the people who had been taking care of Simba, nursing him back to health: Cudjoe thought he had a path to the child, to the story of the fire. One day, however, Simba got on a bicycle and rode away. No one could find him; he simply disappeared—another lost fragment.
In the city to which Cudjoe returns, even the possibility of childhood seems to have been lost. The omnipresent graffiti spells out “Kid’s Krusade Kaliban’s Kiddie Korps. MPT…Money Power Things.” Cudjoe’s friend Timbo, a former college classmate, now the mayor’s cultural attache, translates the message: “Kids today are a bitch…. Now they kill anybody. Anything…. Ice water in their veins…. They want to take over, man…. Claim the only difference between them and grown-ups is grown-ups hold the money, power and things.” Yet Timbo also lists atrocities that reveal adult indifference to the fate of children. The system not only has failed children in the schools, courts, hospitals, and streets but also has ignored them except to exploit their salability: “lack of legal rights, child abuse, kiddie porn, kid’s bodies used to sell shit on TV.” This is not a place where childhood can survive or nurturance can be passed on from one generation to the next.
The break in the chain of nurturance that Cudjoe witnesses is reflected in his own life. The house to which he returns in Philadelphia is full of the memories of the summer he spent caring for his dying grandmother. “He learned the parts of a woman’s body caring for her…. He loved her. Shared her secrets. If he sat in the rocker keeping watch while she slept, she would not die.” Yet she did die, and her death seems to have broken the link of responsible caring for Cudjoe.
He is divorced and has no contact with his children. Sam, the editor who nurtured his talent, is dead. He lunches with Timbo and encounters the younger brother of his...
(The entire section is 1678 words.)