A faint light came from the shutters; the moon was full. Two dogs, far away, were barking at each other, back and forth, insistently, as though they were agreeing to make an appointment.
I mean, that's pure Chekhov, right? The simple description of the scene, the anthropomorphized dogs, the wry humor? Except that it's not Chekhov, it's James Baldwin, from "Going to Meet the Man," the title story of the collection of Baldwin stories I just read. There is a lot of Chekhov in these stories, which is apt enough. If Chekhov was the greatest short story writer of the 19th century (which he was), then Baldwin may have been the greatest short story writer of the 20th century. Going to Meet the Man is a strong argument to support that claim.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it, and even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
Baldwin, in these eight stories, writes not only from his own experience, but also, movingly and convincingly, of the experiences of others. This is of course one of the most vital uses of fiction: to empathize with people who are unlike us. We get inside the heads of men and women, of musicians, of actors, of children, of Fifth Avenue professionals, of dirt farmers, of people from all walks of life though mostly from America, many from New York. This is, after all, a book about America even when the story is set in Paris.
I know that Vidal has nightmares, because he knows so much about them, but he has never told me what his are. I think that he probably does not talk about his nightmares any more. I know that the war cost him his wife and son, and that he was in prison in Germany. He very rarely refers to it. He has a married daughter who lives in England, and he rarely speaks of her. He is like a man who has learned to live on what is left of an enormous fortune.
That last line is beautiful, full of understanding, more full of meaning than those eighteen words should be able to bear. Again, I think of Chekhov. But Baldwin's gift is his own, and part of that gift is a poetic sense that Chekhov didn't really have, at least not when Chekhov was looking away from nature. Baldwin can see the poetry even in impersonal capitalist architecture.
Because she was late for work and because it was raining, she dropped into a cab and was whirled out of the streets of the Village--which still suggested, at least, some faint memory of the individual life--into the grim publicities of midtown Manhattan. Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven.
I think you can maybe see the influence of Henry James in that passage. Baldwin was an admirer of James.
The most remarkable story in Going to Meet the Man is the title story, a violent tale of a white policemen named Jesse who has spent the last few days arresting and beating Black men who are registering to vote at city hall. Baldwin takes us into Jesse's mind, into his insecurity and mistrust of the present moment, as the world changes and he no longer knows his place in it.
They had never dreamed that their privacy could contain any element of terror, could threaten, that is, to reveal itself, to the scrutiny of a judgement day, while remaining unreadable and inaccessible to themselves; nor had they dreamed that the past, while certainly refusing to be forgotten, could yet so stubbornly refuse to be remembered. They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught, as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people--while here they were, outnumbered, fighting to save the civilized world.
But no one dared imagine what there might be to confess. They were soldiers fighting a war, but their relationship to each other was that of accomplices in a crime. They all had to keep their mouths shut.
From there, Baldwin takes us into the childhood memories of Jesse, to a day in his boyhood when a mob of white men have captured a Black man who may or may not have committed a crime against a white woman ("the one that knocked down old Miss Standish"). The entire white community gathers outside of town in a field at the edge of a forest, where the captured Black man is tortured, mutilated, and then burned to death. Immediately afterward, the white folks sit down for a picnic. Baldwin maintains a close narrative style, sympathetic to Jesse's child point of view as he has his first taste of indoctrination into a culture of violent racism.
At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.