Pittsburgh, what a generator of loneliness and tumult. Its predominantly African-American Hill District was the forcing ground of the playwright August Wilson, who paid such tender and respectful attention to lives there.
The indispensable John Edgar Wideman was raised not far away, further east, in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. His postindustrial Pittsburgh is the locus of many of his novels and memoirs, and its texture and sociology burn a hole through the stories in “You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories, 1981-2018.”
By the time Wideman was a young man, Homewood was pockmarked with burned-out stores and bent parking meters; he compares the houses to rotten teeth. “Somebody should make a deep ditch out of Homewood Avenue,” he writes in one story, “and just go on and push the rowhouses and boarded storefronts into the hole. Bury it all.”
But the pickup basketball games are intense. The Pirates game is on the radio. The streets and their evocative names shimmer “like the first notes of a Monk solo.” Some of the ghosts are benign. (“You can almost hear music from where Porgy’s Record Shop used to be.”) The healing richness of family life, and of family stories, renders unbearable experiences bearable.
Wideman got out of Homewood when he left for the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship. He then studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. His narrators have mostly gotten out, too. But they remain in close emotional contact with the cringing, the alienation, the clowning, the wariness, the self-mistrust and self-satire that came with growing up poor and Black in Pittsburgh.
Wideman is now approaching 80, and this is the first anthology of his short fiction since “The Stories of John Edgar Wideman” appeared in 1992. That book brought together all of the stories in his first two collections, “Damballah” (1981) and “Fever” (1989), along with several new ones.
It’s a mistake to attempt to overlay Wideman’s biography too neatly on top of his fiction. But in an indelible memoir, “Brothers and Keepers” (1984), he wrote about his younger brother, Robby, who was given a life sentence in prison for being an accomplice to a murder during a botched robbery.
Robby’s experience informs several of the stories collected here. “Solitary” recounts a mother traveling hours by bus to see her son, and the sorry indignities that confront her when she arrives at the prison.
Wideman’s narrators are aware that a brother’s life could easily, had fate fallen differently, have been their own. Wideman’s is among literature’s great brother-haunted voices, alongside Jack Kerouac, whose brother Gerard died when both were children and whom Kerouac thought spoke through him when he wrote. And alongside John Gardner, who killed his younger brother, Gilbert, age 6, by accidentally running him over with a cultipacker. And Anthony Trollope, whose older brother, Arthur, died at 12 from tuberculosis.
Not all of Wideman’s stories are set in Homewood. Many have a cosmopolitan sensibility and move easily among places like Manhattan, Paris, Philadelphia and Cape Town, South Africa. One is about a writer, reeling from losses he can’t entirely put a finger on, who is determined to leap from the Williamsburg Bridge. Wideman’s wit is undervalued. In this story the man worries that, by committing suicide, he’ll miss his agent’s birthday party.
Another is about a fact-finding trip to Cape Town, a cultural exchange of a sort, that goes wobbly when a guide takes a wrong turn. Yet another, “Who Invented the Jump Shot,” is about the earliest days of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Why not try to make money playing basketball? the narrator thinks. “He’s noticed how much money white people will pay to see Negroes do what white people can’t or won’t or shouldn’t but always wanted to do, especially after they see Negroes doing it.” He adds: “Step right up, ladies and gents. Watch Jimbo Crow fly.”
Other stories here are in dialogue with historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and also with Jean-Michel Basquiat and the collage artist Romare Bearden, who spent part of his childhood in Pittsburgh.
Six or eight of the stories in “You Made Me Love You” are destroyers. Read “Across the Wide Missouri” if you want to see what this writer can do. Others, especially from later in his career, meander.
On occasion Wideman can almost seem to push his readers away intentionally, as if he were Miles Davis soloing with his back to the audience. He does not always wish to be too well understood.
No matter where we find ourselves in these stories, the author’s mind, and thus the reader’s, seems turned like a weathercock toward Homewood. Three of Wideman’s books, “Damballah” and the novels “Hiding Place” and “Sent for You Yesterday,” are sometimes considered “The Homewood Trilogy” and were published together under that title in 1985. (Wideman has said he’s slightly uncomfortable with this grouping, since he didn’t imagine the books as a trilogy.)
Wideman’s narrators are often ambushed by memory. In his avidity for the mundane, he uses food to profound effect. Sometimes there is the sense of scraping together a little happiness. Popping string beans sound like knuckles cracking. At other times, the tidings are almost existentially bleak. There’s the father who comes home, after helping a white man slaughter a hog, with just half a pail of guts for Christmas Eve dinner.
There are the scrambled eggs a young boy eats in front of the white family for whom his grandmother cooks and cleans. He’s enraged to be on display, his sensitive heart scalded, and yet he is “determined not to disappoint anybody, not to spill food or get my mouth greasy or talk like a little ignorant pickaninny.”
Another of Wideman’s narrators parses the cultural stereotypes surrounding watermelon. “I was too scared to enjoy watermelon,” he says. “Too self-conscious. I let people rob me of a simple pleasure.”
Wideman’s stories have a wary, brooding spirit, a lonely intelligence. They carry a real but atrophied affection for America. He airs the problems of consciousness, including the fragile contingency of our existence.
“Crowds amaze him,” we read about one of his characters. “Busy swarms of people who haven’t heard the news. Hey, he wants to shout. Listen up, everybody. It ain’t just about me. Each and every one of you has got to go.”
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