Ronald L. Fair Michael Cooke - Essay

Michael Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We Can't Breathe is a plangent story of growing up with rats and shattered bottles and lives in the black ghetto of South Chicago.

It is problematical whether We Can't Breathe is elliptical autobiography or obsessive fiction, but its presence seizes, and wrenches, the mind. Fair at first creates a kind of ghetto pastoral, with adumbrations of heroic enterprise…. But it is at bottom a sinister pastoral, sinister heroics. The episode of killing rats can't be converted: spontaneous fear and horror prevail over any youthful ignorance and absorption in the need to play…. There follows the realistic phase, the sudden iron age relieved, unintelligibly and most imperfectly, by such as "Ole Gentle Sam," a black Messiah killed in Vietnam at sixteen, and by the author's own burgeoning ability and mission to write.

One is led to suspect, though, that this very mission—to tell it like it is, and to tell it lovingly withal—is still too hot upon him, still a little confused with the lamentable burden of the story, and thus needing to be discharged in more than one sense. At the end the treatment of Willie, run afoul of the law, seems strained in its mercilessness, and the orchestration of the scene where Theo, a bare teenager, takes charge of his motley siblings from his toping, promiscuous mother overdoes the strident note. The point of this harshness may be to forestall the comfortable sentimentalist who could say that a redemption, the miracle of survival, continues in the ghetto; even those who survive draw their twisting breath in pain. But the point is rather to be inferred than made. (pp. 607-08)

Michael Cooke, "New Books in Review: 'We Can't Breathe'," in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXI, No. 4, Summer, 1972, pp. 607-08.