The subtitle of John Edgar Wideman’s Two Cities at first confuses readers: “A Love Story.” Expecting romance, readers are thrown into a world of violence, death, and loneliness. Kassima has experienced more loss in her thirty-five years than most people experience in their whole lives. Her husband has died a victim of the AIDS virus he contracted while imprisoned; her two sons have been killed in the deadly gang violence of Pittsburgh’s inner city. Robert Jones, a kind man, confronts the daily threat of violence as he attempts to live his life as normally as one can amid gang turf wars on the neighborhood basketball court, in the post office, on the streets. At age fifty, Robert and others of his generation can only watch and hold back their anger and despair as young men kill themselves and others. Old Mr. Mallory, having witnessed death in a world war and in the street wars of America’s cities, awaits his own end. Love among such ruins—the ruins of neighborhoods, of families, of lives—saves a young woman from despair, a middle-aged man from loneliness, and an old man from meaninglessness.
Wideman’s novel is also a story of two cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, run over and run down by violence. In Philadelphia, police attack the barricaded MOVE compound, killing eleven men, women, and children, one of whom—John Africa—is Mr. Mallory’s early-morning walking companion. OD’s Diner, where Mallory takes his breakfast daily, becomes a site of burglary and murder at the hands of OD’s own son. In Pittsburgh, red-and blue-clad boys in oversized parkas carrying oversized guns tear a world apart. In these two cities, death has become a fact of life. When Wideman speaks of two cities, however, he is not simply referring to geographic locations but also using them as metaphors. In the same way that Mr. Mallory inextricably intertwines in his consciousness these two places and their inhabitants, Wideman treats death and life as two concomitant modes of existence often indistinguishable one from the other. In Wideman’s world, life is shaped by death, by the images of death, and by its constant threat. Memories of times past and people who have died live in those who remain. Wideman transforms the “haints” prominent in the African American tradition into a blending of past and present, dead and living, memory and action.
When Robert meets Kassima in Edgar’s bar, he never expected to love and be loved: “A beat-up fifty-year-old man so happy and sad because it took me every one of those years to find her and feel good as I did.” A night of dancing followed by days of lovemaking lead to several months of profound joy for two people for whom the hope of present passion has been subdued by past anguish. Entering Kassima’s narrow, cluttered house on Cassina Way in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Robert thinks that it could be the same house in which he grew up with his grandparents, mother, and aunts. His memories are filled with women who loved him and a grandfather’s dying. In the hallway leading to the kitchen, he remembered “workboots crusty and untied, waiting untouched, waiting because his grandmother said they must be there when his grandfather returns from the dead to lace them on again.” Now he is in this house once more, and it is again filled with death—Kassima’s deceased sons and husband, and old Mr. Mallory waiting for his end.
In the midst of it all, Kassima offers Robert love. She observes that “nothing he could do would make me love him more . . . but men don’t understand love is love and if it’s love it’s enough. Men always got to prove something.” Robert has to prove on the basketball court that he can run with young men, that he can still play the game, that he can stand up to gangbangers who overtake the court, that he is not afraid of their guns. Flirting with death, coming close to mortality, Robert unwittingly drives Kassima away. She cannot lose another man. She will not invest her emotion in another person only to see him taken from her. When she lost a husband and two sons within ten...
(The entire section is 1675 words.)