A Harvard-trained intellectual wrestles with race, politics and parenting.
Reviewed by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page BW08
PUSHKIN AND THE QUEEN OF SPADES
By Alice Randall. Houghton Mifflin. 282 pp. $24
Alice Randall's first novel was The Wind Done Gone, the long-overdue send-up of Gone With the Wind that sparked the wrath of Margaret Mitchell's estate. The Mitchell estate, as many may remember, sued, attempting to stop publication. They lost, and The Wind Done Gone proceeded to have a successful career. I am happy it did because nothing should have been allowed to discourage the talent so clearly evidenced in the linguistically exuberant Pushkin and the Queen of Spades.
"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," wrote the Bard. Particularly -- he might have added -- when she is an irate mother. Windsor Armstrong is furious, depressed, frenetic and conflicted. She is writing a turgid, unfinished and unfinishable letter to her son, Pushkin X. It is the narrative of her life. It jumps back in time, leaps forward, frequently derails to become metaphor, fantasy and rant. But Pushkin X must be made to understand. Why she is angry, wounded. Why she became such a snotty Harvard intellectual. Why she cannot tell Pushkin X who his father is. Why this, why that. In this blizzard of desperate self-justification, it isn't until page 103 that the narrator happens to mention her own name.
Pushkin X is named after Windsor Armstrong's two personal heroes, Malcolm X and Pushkin, the great Russian poet. Windsor is a Pushkin scholar. Her love affair with the poet began as a child, the night a school friend happened to tell her that Pushkin was the descendant of a black African. The more Windsor learns about Pushkin's literary importance, the more significant becomes the discovery. "That night I went to sleep on Pratesi sheets, knowing that the man who invented the language of millions and millions of Russians, the man who invented the language of Tolstoy and Turgenev, was black like me." Thus began a profound relationship with language, with literature. Pushkin, Windsor Armstrong believes, saved her life.
Both Pushkins, the poet and Windsor's son, have brought her immense joy, love and, especially now, dismay. Pushkin, the poet, was ashamed of his black roots. A paranoid genius, he believed he was unattractive. His self-doubt and feeling of having a tainted ancestry contributed to his inability to accept that his beautiful wife, Natalya, was a faithful companion. The haunted poet expressed his conflicted emotions in an unfinished work, "The Negro of Peter the Great."
Pushkin, her son, has fallen short of Windsor's admittedly high expectations. Harvard graduate, product of a ghetto upbringing, Windsor has conquered all the stereotypes. She was raped in her late teens -- and impregnated. Encouraged to abort the child, she didn't. Instead she attended Harvard, where she was "pregnant and shunned" and embarrassed her black classmates. She could relate to the feelings of her detractors. "Someone's always disgracing blackness, validating the stereotype somewhere it shouldn't be. At Harvard I was that fool." Or as one of her gossipy classmates once said, "You'd think a person smart enough to get into Harvard would be smart enough to know how not to get a baby."
The child she carried as she waddled down the Ivy-League halls has taken a different route. He isn't the future educator or civic leader she imagined she was raising. He's an athlete -- a professional football player, in fact. Not even 25 years old, he's already a millionaire. How come mama isn't proud? Why can't she resist the nagging criticism that her precious is fulfilling a black macho stereotype? "I was never comfortable in those stands. I don't believe I was ever comfortable with all those eyes on Pushkin. While I worked at invisibility, Pushkin worked at invincibility. That was the difference between us."
Pushkin X has had the benefit of a world of books, a boarding-school education, a bilingual mother who has tried to instill in him the love of all things Russian. If any of this has influenced him, Windsor is beginning to think it's been in the wrong ways. For a bride he has chosen a white Russian stripper. In a bearish Russian manner, he is insisting that Windsor reveal the name of his father. How can she tell him the secret she has kept all these years -- that a white man molested her? How can she explain her resentment of his choice for a bride? Is she a racist, or is Pushkin X a black man blinded by a white harlot? And what would Pushkin the poet think about all this?
The story Windsor must tell seems beyond the grasp of words, so of course she writes. She revisits nephews, aunts, uncles, her childhood, all to explain to Pushkin X exactly how they both arrived at this moment. The story is often anguished, the telling is often comic. It's a bittersweet and highly literate narrative, loaded with skillful references to literary history. Windsor's reality blurs with remembered scenes from her favorite books -- snippets from the Russian masters, Pushkin especially, but Faulkner, Jane Austen and even Colson Whitehead also receive cameos. Dostoyevsky is never mentioned; the resemblance, perhaps, strikes too close to home. Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is Notes From the Underground -- black Mama-style.
Like its forebear by Dostoyevsky, this book is a dance of lengthy expository passages, memories and fantasies hinged to a narrative. The heart of the tale is in the lyricism of the telling. Pushkin and the Queen of Spades takes as its core themes the problems of race and identity. Often discursive, it may at times resemble a nonfiction treatise on these subjects. But its saving grace is how imaginative it nonetheless is. Alice Randall gives us a character (and Windsor Armstrong is a great character), a situation, a pulse, a sense of the contradictions that life involves. The book isn't overwhelmed by the urgency to say something pithy, corrective and unequivocal. Better a fictional character's fumbling contradictions than unrealistic, arrogant or badly thought out answers. The story of Windsor Armstrong and Pushkin X humanizes the issues, and that in turn humanizes the reader. •
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C. His work is forthcoming in the World and I and Dissent.
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