Collateral Damage

Reviewed by David Masiel
Sunday, June 4, 2006


A Novel

By Marita Golden

Doubleday. 237 pp. $23.95

As the title implies, Marita Golden's new novel, After , concerns the effects of a seminal event: Carson Blake, a black police officer, mistakenly shoots a 25-year-old black school teacher, the son of university professors. The novel wastes little time getting to that event; the first sentence explodes with it. Thereafter, Golden, who is best known for her nonfiction narratives exploring racial identity, including Migrations of the Heart and Don't Play in the Sun , ably walks the line between predictable morality tale and compelling personal journey.

Prior to the shooting, Carson is entrenched in the routines of middle class life: work, family and home. Work is the problem. A veteran police officer in suburban D.C., he laments the "aimless, directionless" congregations of black youths, who "can turn any place into a ghetto." At a recent shooting, he finds a young black male "dressed in spanking new jeans, two-hundred-dollar Air Jordans, and a Phat Farm sweatshirt . . . dead ." Golden's spare, poetic prose, in the present tense, shows Carson patroling with rising frustration: " God damn, my people, my people ," he thinks, "envisioning the future of the race in every act and every choice these young men make." He has tried to talk to them, "but he might as well be speaking Mandarin."

By himself, Carson is compelling and believable, particularly for his shortcomings, which are enacted without the kind of authorial judgment that would undermine the narrative. Golden skillfully weaves past and present together, effectively expressing her main character's internal battle. But Carson isn't by himself in this story, and therein lies some difficulty.

The pivotal incident occurs around midnight, at the end of Carson's shift, when a black Nissan speeds past with its lights off. The driver fails to pull over initially and appears, to Carson at least, to be evading arrest. When the car finally does stop, Carson draws his gun and orders the man to kneel. Events unfold with a dreadful inevitability:

"Carson begins to approach the kneeling man when he sees him drop his left hand and reach inside his waistband. . . . The quick, small movement chills the night and freezes Carson's blood." The driver turns and rises swiftly, reaching toward him with something, a gun perhaps. In a pulsing moment of fear and desperation, Carson shoots. The man and the cell phone he was holding drop to the pavement. Carson's mind swirls with hallucinatory horror, his question looming over the body of Paul Houston: "Why didn't you just do what I said?"

For two-thirds of the novel, we are left to guess at the answer. By the time we find out, the explanation seems insufficient. Not Houston's rattled state of mind over personal troubles, not even the possibility that the phone started vibrating to signal an incoming call seems to account for his inability to recognize the gravity of the moment: A cop with a loaded weapon was yelling at him. Houston's actions, while necessary for the story, signal the primary challenge of Golden's subject: For Carson to feel the guilt that forces him to change, Houston must be innocent, but to maintain sympathy for Carson, Houston must reasonably appear to be guilty. Trying to maintain these two positions creates the novel's fundamental weakness.

Perhaps for this reason, Golden keeps us in Carson's mind, as if Houston's actions don't really matter. We feel the cop is misunderstood, convicted in the minds of most of his friends, to some degree by his own family, and most of all, by himself. The legal realities are no consolation: Administrative leave isolates him; his union lawyer is interested only in saving Carson's job, not finding the truth; and only Carson's street-hardened colleagues offer any understanding; yet their approval is suspicious at best. Carson must fight the terrible inertia to become like them -- cynical, uncaring, a danger to public safety.

Only through therapy does Golden reveal the underlying causes of his self-loathing, a device that is realistic but lacks drama and leads to a somewhat tidy resolution. Carson's wife, driven by her need to protect her family, wields psychological insights with uncanny precision, and Carson's recognition of his own prejudices, particularly relating to his son's ambiguous sexuality, gives an uneasy sense of moral and political contrivance.

Yet for all these difficulties, Carson redeems not only himself, but the novel, too. Despite missteps with secondary characters and a case-study kind of plotting, there's no denying Golden's empathy for her main character and her willingness to push him into dark places of self-recrimination. As an angry, ever more hardening cop, Carson can and must change. While there is little surprise in the purposeful resolution of the story, the understated humility inherent in his personal evolution is hard to dismiss, if only for its fundamental rightness. ยท

David Masiel is the author, most recently, of "The Western Limit of the World."

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