Black & White
By Lewis Shiner
Subterranean, 376 pp.
"The past," William Faulkner wrote, "is never dead. It's not even past." Lewis Shiner's new Southern noir Black & White—set in the author's hometown of Durham—is only the latest novel to rearticulate this central, inescapable American truth, the endless return of the secret histories and collective sins we wish could just stay buried.
There are secrets upon secrets in Black & White, sins upon sins, but they all revolve around a single, penetrating absence: Hayti, the African-American community gutted by the construction of the Durham Freeway 40 years ago. When comic artist Michael Cooper returns to Durham in 2004 with his elderly mother and father after a childhood spent in Dallas, Texas (his father has "come home to die"), he finds himself drawn deeper into this still-bleeding communal wound. A simple effort to retrieve a copy of his birth certificate—of which there is mysteriously no record—leads Michael unexpectedly to his father's involvement in the murder of a civil rights activist found in a concrete overpass on N.C. 147.
The corpse, of course, is more than just a single person's: This is Hayti's corpse, the murder still unsolved.
Shiner's story takes us deep into the unhealed psychic wounds surrounding the urban renewal movement of the 1960s and '70s, in which federal funds were taken by Southern cities such as Durham to "revitalize" troubled—read "black"—areas in what one of Shiner's characters describes as a "calculated revenge for integration. Urban renewal focused almost exclusively on black neighborhoods. Nothing was ever rebuilt, only destroyed." So it was with Hayti when it was cut in two to build the road leading out of town to Research Triangle Park.
Michael's search for the truth ultimately returns him to his father's bedside and a never-before-told story of life in Durham in the 1960s; I must admit that I felt a bit cheated to read this material in the third person and not directly as it came from Michael's father's mouth. Secrets that could never be given voice are at last revealed: violence, sex, corruption and murder, sure, but also the simple, all-too-human cowardice that ruins lives. Black & White reveals itself through these flashback passages as a generational story that is by turns both Shakespearean and quintessentially Faulknerian, including the revelation of a villainous Southern patriarch, in the form of Michael's maternal grandfather, who could have stepped directly out of the pages of Absalom, Absalom!
Black & White's mapping of the loss of Hayti onto a family melodrama certainly creates a gripping story, but the choice is not without its pitfalls. A metaphor, after all, requires some psychic distance between tenor and vehicle in order to function—otherwise it's just a one-to-one correspondence. Michael's Oedipal drama drifts at times perilously close to the latter, with a number of discoveries all but screaming out their allegorical significance. In the end, Michael seems less a person than the walking, talking embodiment of America's troubled racial history, to the novel's detriment.
Along the same lines, it seems a very strange choice for a novel so concerned with history to culminate in a completely ahistorical race riot at the opening of the American Tobacco Complex in 2004. Narratively, such an event makes perfect sense: This is a textbook case of the return of the repressed, the inevitable explosion of long-suppressed tensions in Durham's collective unconscious. The problem is nothing like that happened. Shiner stumbles, in his final act, into the summer action-movie blockbuster version of Durham history, punctuated by Klan-like white supremacist conspiracies and, yes, even a last-minute cut-the-blue-wire! bomb defusion crisis. The contrivances of this ending strike me as a deep betrayal of what has come before—the story of Hayti, after all, ended not with a bang but a whimper, and that was half the crime. Again Shiner accidentally let his metaphors get in the way of what's true: What Black & White needed was a climax as quiet as Hayti's memory, and as haunting as its ghosts.
Lewis Shiner reads from Black & White at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham Friday, July 11, at 7 p.m. and at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Wednesday, July 23, at 7 p.m.