Saturday, 4 June 2016

GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin

Of this novel, his first, Baldwin said "MOUNTAIN is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father."

And he certainly odes deal with his father. Big time. The novel takes place during a single all-night church service during which the 14 year old John (i.e., James Baldwin) gives his heart to Jesus. The novel dips in and out of the memories of all of his family, covering everything from his grandmother, who was a freed slave, to his mother and aunt and of course, his father, who though a lay preacher is essentially the novel's monster. It's unclear if John's conversion is a submission to, or victory over, the man.

Baldwin has a dark view of family life, and every relationship is complicated and unhappy. The freed slave woman, for example, is mostly pictured as a burden her daughter can't wait to escape: it's frighteningly unsentimental.

It's also remarkably written. It's full of the Bible. Here he is on Broadway: "And certainly perdition sucked at the feet of the people who walked there: and cried in the lights, in the gigantic towers; the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people who waited at the doors of the movie houses; his words were printed on the great movie posters that invited people to sin. It was the roar of the damned that filled Broadway, where motor-cars and buses and the hurrying people disputed every inch with death. Broadway: the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it."

It's a great novel, showing what can happen at that wonderful point where poetry and self-help converge.

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