Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
Ronald Fair is one of those American writers who keep producing fine work and getting little recognition. I associate him with writers like Wright Morris, Nelson Algren and Warren Miller, who have enjoyed considerable critical praise but have failed ever to win the profitable attention of the establishment. They occupy that place in American literature most writers would avoid if at all possible: being described as good but minor writers.
Fair is a careful and controlled craftsman. His novels are short, simply and clearly written, and move with speed from one good scene to the next. [We Can't Breathe] … is a moving, cleanly written autobiographical novel about a young black growing up in the slums of Chicago during the thirties and forties.
Fair's Ernie captures the gentle reminiscent tone of a man ambiguously satisfied with the scenes of his past. He amuses us with a gallery of unusual people….
The gang that Ernie leads during his pre-teen years takes part in adventures that remind us of the naughty exuberance of the Dead End Kids—the movie version. They steal from well-stocked, white-owned stores outside their neighborhood. They fight with older neighborhood kids and win….
But the rosy glow of nostalgia is not the dominant tone of We Can't Breathe. Ronald Fair is black, has lived the life he writes about. The creators of the movie-version Dead End Kids were able to avoid any suggestion that the poverty in which the youngsters lived was anything but a lark…. Fair's honesty and experience prohibit him from any such debasement of reality. Ernie discovers early that he is a "nigger" and that this means he is permanently at a disadvantage in a vicious world. (p. 253)
Fair finds no new outrages, produces no new atrocities. But We Can't Breathe does not strike the reader as being more of the same, as a repetition of Native Son or Knock on Any Door or Manchild in the Promised Land. For one thing, Fair is too good a writer. Though the experiences he fictionalizes in this novel resemble the experiences of many other blacks who have written about them, his own response is unique and individual; the forms in which he casts his experiences reflect that uniqueness. They remind us of a reality of which we must never lose sight, comprised of an almost limitless store of examples of inhumanity.
But the most important story Fair tells is not of oppression and degradation but of the saving of Ernie's humanity. He becomes a writer, not a published one but a real one. Through his writing he acquires the ability to give shape to his experience, develops a sense of purpose, frees himself from the sealed vessel of his frustrations. Without this outlet, he would surely have ended up with a needle in his arm or a bullet in his head. With it, he plumbs the soul of his people, becomes their Everyman. He grieves for them, and his stories are sacred embodiments of that grief…. The truth Fair tells is wrapped in love. Not the sentimental kind that must soften the reality but the kind that finds in truth the only ground for dignity. (pp. 253-54)
Somehow, from the unpromising confusion of poverty … Ernie emerges as a self-conscious being, not only surviving but keeping "some of my humanity intact." That is the really awesome mystery of the black man in America, and We Can't Breathe is one more valuable testament of that mystery. (p. 254)
Jerry H. Bryant, "The Only Ground for Dignity," in The Nation (copyright 1972 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 214, No. 8, February 21, 1972, pp. 253-54.
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