Native Sons in Philadelphia: Why We Need More Novelists Like Jean Love Cush

ENDANGERED
by Jean Love Cush
Amistad, 272 pages

There are petulant Caucasians who stretch out their soft, unfettered, and upper middle-class hands for the gluten-free, vegan muffins at their cozy corner bakery when they’re not waiting for the afternoon dacha trip to stave off the high stress of a Tuesday morning hot yoga session. And then there is the rest of America: those who try to make ends meet with a minimum wage job and little more than a high school education, families crowded inside small apartments who go to bed with the nightly reports of gunfire, and young African-Americans who cannot run into a cop without being handed some bogus rap (and, in the case of Eric Garner, killed for wanting to be left alone). One world remains blissfully unaware of the other. The other world must contend with its stories being excised from mainstream culture, even as it must stifle its anger at being marginalized or erased altogether from vital conversations.

One would think that the variegated possibilities of literature would be robust enough to bridge this awful gap, but we have seen whitewashed book covers, YA characters of color doomed to what Christopher Myers refers to as “the apartheid of children’s literature,” bestselling African-American authors told that there is no audience for their work, and racism still lingering in the science fiction world. Yet Jean Love Cush’s Endangered, a powerful work of fiction that, in a more civilized and inclusive world, would be discussed at book clubs and held up in independent bookstores as a vital glimpse inside neglected truths, has been completely ignored by newspapers and abandoned by purportedly enlightened tastemakers fond of uttering the defensive words “Some of my best friends are…” at cocktail parties.

The book, set just after Obama’s inauguration, centers around a fifteen-year-old boy in Philadelphia named Malik Williams who, like any black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, is arrested because he vaguely matches the general description of a homicide suspect. Malik’s mother, Janae, who works as a cafeteria worker, tries to rescue her son between work stints she is barely able to reduce to half-shifts. She cannot afford an attorney who can offer the appropriate defense on her meager salary. The prosecution wishes to try Malik as an adult. Malik’s story is picked up by the media, who wishes to spin his narrative into a fearful vision of cities gripped by violence, complete with armchair academics insisting that trying children as adults is the only way to combat the problem. (On this point and many others, Cush is dead on. It is quite easy to find these specious arguments for “responsibility” if you poke around FOX News.) As Janae becomes a more uncomfortably visible participant in her son’s story, she comes to understand how the media has built a regressive belief culture on racial bias:

As a young girl, she’d come to believe that it was black men who committed all the crimes. They were the ones who were identified in the news stories by the anchors and reporters she’d trusted. Even when a news story left out the racial description, it was easy to fill in the blank and assume the perpetrator was black because of how many other times the bad guy was identified was black. Now, Janae knew that the images she saw on the news, the stories they chose to report on, and even the news angle had more to do with the story the reporter wants to tell or the agenda of the network than a deep-seated passion to get at the truth.

In a nod to Richard Wright’s Boris Max, Cush introduces Roger Whitford, a prominent white human rights attorney who helps Janae with her case. But there is also Calvin Moore, a black attorney who worked his way into a big firm out of the ghetto, blackmailed by one of the partners into becoming involved in the case “that we cannot have any part of because of the potential fallout from it.” Both Whitford and Moore work under the guise of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights, a controversial organization offering the provocative thesis that the Endangered Species Act should be extended to black boys, under the theory that nearly every statistic shows that young blacks are fated to be massacred.

Many of the stats that Cush conveys through her characters can actually be backed up. Last October, The Sentencing Project submitted a harrowing report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, revealing that one in three African American males born today can expect to find themselves in prison at any given time in their lives. The report (PDF) cited black youth’s disproportionate incarceration. Blacks are 16% of all American children, yet make up 28% of juvenile arrests. According to the report, which relied on government statistics and academic scholarship, this unpardonable disparity cannot be pegged solely on poverty and a higher crime rate. Implicit racial bias, predicated upon overworked cops making impulsive decisions and the majority of our nation associating African-Americans with such modifiers as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal,” is also to blame.

So there’s something refreshingly risky and necessary in Cush unpacking her Endangered Species Act premise. In fact, the idea is not unique to Cush. In 2012, D.L. Hughley made a mockumentary (see clip above) in which he lobbied to declare African-Americans an endangered species. In February 2014, Wayne Brady was courageous enough to declare that “the young black man is becoming an endangered species.” Like caustic headlines from The Onion, perhaps these dialogues in comedy and in fiction presage real events.

But the concept also means comparing young African-Americans to animals — a prospect that Janae isn’t especially thrilled about and one that bears uncomfortable resonances to Anthony Cumia’s racist Twitter tirade and 911 operator April Sims’s similarly atavistic sentiments. The suggestion here is that pursuing a severe protective measure for blacks in response to escalating violence could involve playing into the remaining racist sentiments held by those in power.

Endangered is not a perfect book. It is riddled with some undercooked prose (“It was as if fire had darted from her eyes and mouth and singed the hell out of him” and beads of sweat used too often as a shorthand description for tension). But the book crackles with challenging considerations one does not often see in contemporary fiction and is greatly helped by the undeniable momentum of its thrilling story, even if its socially conscious melodrama results in some extraordinary conduct by a judge late in the book. Nevertheless, Endangered is a truer, braver, and more emotional novel than most of the lumpy oatmeal pumped out of the Brooklyn bourgie mill. I would rather read a slightly flawed yet highly visceral book going for broke than another myopic and overly praised entry in the Brooklyn latte genre, and I suspect so would most of America.

Ariel S. Winter (The Bat Segundo Show)

Ariel S. Winter is most recently the author of The Twenty-Year Death.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can condense the shards of his life into a twenty-year epic spanning three books.

Author: Ariel S. Winter

Subjects Discussed: Day jobs, being a stay-at-home father, sneaking out to write in the library, the exhaustion of writing after kids have gone to bed, Susan Straight, Stewart O’Nan writing 250 words a day, maximum time and page counts, the choice of pastiche, Georges Simenon writing novels in 11 days, original idea of a reader frame narrative, Police at a Funeral‘s original title, similarities between main character and F. Scott Fitzgerald, postponing writing in the first person until volume III, knowing the end based on Jim Thompson endings, The Alcoholic, narrators having the same sound, Pop. 1280, adopting specific verbal phrases, Chandler’s “automatic elevators”, Thompson’s “five-ten dollars”, consulting pages of Chandler/Simenon/Thompson books before writing, chronological accuracy, The Yellow Dog, references to World War II in Chandler’s novels, the importance of newspapermen, The Furies, punishment of those who kill members of their own family, Fitzgerald’s lone play, deaths with a comic tone, Murder, My Sweet, Thompson’s criminals never thinking they are at fault, Chandler being the most difficult to emulate, John Banville’s upcoming Philip Marlowe novel, apologizing to each writer in the dedication, poems in dialogue with other poems, Marlowe’s interest in poetry and chess,The Long Goodbye, maintaining the consistency of pastiche through various drafts, changing the ending to Malniveau Prison, Charles Ardai as editor, the Hard Case Crime editing style, James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, advantages of genre and pastiche versus original voice, and modernist aspects of The Twenty-Year Death.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were talking beforehand. I was curious what you did. And you said, “Well, I’m not going to tell you, Ed. I’m going to tell it to you on air.” I was curious about your life that is not a writer. What is that like? What is it that you do? What is your day job?

Winter: Well, my day job is I’m the primary caregiver to my daughter. It was always the plan that when we had kids, I would stay home. So that is what I’ve done since she was born. She’s four. She just turned four. So that’s more than a day job. (laughs)

Correspondent: It is.

Winter: Taking care is really a 24/7 job.

Correspondent: But it does allow you time to write novels.

Winter: Well, so the only way that that was able to happen was we hired somebody, a college girl, to come in three hours a day, five days a week. And I would sneak out, go to the library, and write during that time.

Correspondent: Oh really? So you had to arrange day care to ensure that you could get progress and momentum in the book.

Winter: Yes. Because it’s different.

Correspondent: People don’t talk about that too.

Winter: Well, I’ve worked full-time jobs and written books. And, believe it or not, as hard as it is to come home after working an eight-hour day and then go and sit and write, it’s doable. Where spending ten hours with a two-year-old, you can’t then sit and write when she goes to bed.

Correspondent: Not even a quick sentence or anything?

Winter: It’s too exhausting.

Correspondent: I was talking with Susan Straight and she said that she would always find time to write. Like when she was driving in her car. She scribbles down whatever sentences she can for that day. Just to get some kind of momentum. And then there’s the Stewart O’Nan thing, where he writes like a page. 250 words a day and that’s it. That’s all he can add. But in his case, it takes the whole day. So, for you, has that three hour need to get something going, I mean, what do you generally push forward on in terms of pages and words and so forth?

Winter: When things are going really well, I can write up to four hours a day. But I never write more than four hours usually. So three hours works really well, usually in that first hour might take me a little bit to get going. I might only write a page in that first hour and then I can, in that second hour, I can potentially write six pages once I’ve gotten started. So my goal is usually to write at least two hours or, if I have a ridiculous day, ten pages. I try to do one or the other. Whichever comes first. Rarely do I write ten pages in less than two hours, but those are my goals.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask if you actually adopted any techniques to write not only in the style of [Georges] Simenon, [Raymond] Chandler, and [Jim] Thompson [who represent the three styles of the novels contained in The Twenty-Year Death], but also to perhaps write the exact same way that they did. I mean, I did notice that the years that these three separate novels were set matched roughly around the type of writing that Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson were doing at the time. So as a way of offering a general question about why you need to do pastiche over say an original voice, maybe you can talk about this a little bit

Winter: Right. Well, to answer the initial part of your question, I didn’t try to drink a whole lot or smoke cigars.

Correspondent: I figured that was impossible with a two-year-old at home, although it hasn’t prevented other people from trying.

Winter: Right. So I didn’t adopt that part. And then also Simenon, he wrote his novels usually in eleven days. You know, I’m not that fast. I write fast when I’m writing, but not a novel in eleven days. Because I definitely wasn’t able to do that. The reason that I ended up writing in those voices was quite simply, initially, because I was just reading a lot of Simenon at the time. And originally the book that I had set out to write was going to be a book in which there was a reader reading a number of different books. And each of the books the reader read, we would see in full. So there would be this frame narrator — this first-person reader. Then we would see what he had read. And the first one I wrote was this Simenon pastiche. Then as I worked on that book more and I had started to feel like it wasn’t working, I wanted to hold onto them in a prison, which is the Simenon book in The Twenty-Year Death. So as I started to think about expanding and what I might want to do, that’s when I came up with the idea of what would a mystery series look like if it wasn’t the detective that we saw from book to book. Like one of the secondary characters. So since I had already written one in the voice of the author, it followed that I wanted to do the other two in the voice of different authors. And part of that was dictated just by the way that the main character’s, Shem Rosenkratz’s, life would have progressed. He was loosely based on Fitzgerald’s character.

Correspondent: Yes. Police at a Funeral [the title of the second book contained in The Twenty-Year Death] was a title that is in The Crack-Up.

Winter: You’re the first person to pick that up. But, yes, that was purposeful. And what’s really interesting is that I didn’t write the book with that in mind. So the scene where there are actually policemen at a funeral? I wrote that without realizing that was a Fitzgerald title.

Correspondent: The subconscious is an amazing thing.

The Bat Segundo Show #482: Ariel S. Winter (Download MP3)

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