With this novel and stories-- particularly those set in Homewood, a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh--and his memoir BROTHERS AND KEEPERS, John Edgar Wideman has established a reputation as one of the leading black writers of his generation. His previous novel, SENT FOR YOU YESTERDAY, which concluded a Homewood trilogy, received the 1984 PEN Faulkner Award for fiction.
Given that background, REUBEN is a great disappointment. The novel centers on three characters, with the narrative shifting among their points of view. Reuben, the title figure, a humpbacked little man with an interest in Egyptian lore and in pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge, is a self-styled lawyer who has mastered the arcane rituals of the legal system in order to serve black people who would otherwise lack representation. Kwansa Parker, the second principal character, is an unmarried mother who comes to Reuben because she is about to lose custody of her little boy, Cudjoe, to the boy’s father, Waddell, who has taken legal action to have Kwansa declared unfit as a parent. Interwoven with this plot line is another involving the third major character, Wally, a gifted athlete turned college recruiter, who tells Reuben how he gratuitously murdered a white man. (The status of this murder--real event or fantasy?--is deliberately made problematic.) The two seemingly unrelated plot lines converge when the reader intuits a connection between Wally and Kwansa’s Waddell.
It is misleading, though, to describe the novel as if it were a conventionally realistic story: What Wideman intends is a mythic, symbolic narrative capable of accommodating such a patently unrealistic figure as Toodles, the lordly lesbian prostitute who takes Kwansa to her bed and who administers retribution to Waddell with a razor. Taken on its own terms, REUBEN is an ambitious project gone awry--sabotaged in part, perhaps, by the racial anger that Wideman so convincingly communictes.