By Kim McLarin
Saturday, April 24, 2010; C01
TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME
By Pearl Cleage
One World. 270 pp. $25
"What do we write about now?" was a question seriously discussed among a sliver of African American novelists in the heady, stunning aftermath of Barack Obama's election to the presidency. One could argue -- and people have -- that the dominant theme of African American literature from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison has been a search for the true meaning of democracy and equality. If that's true, if the quest for full inclusion and self-definition in this American experiment has dominated black literature, what does it mean to have a black president? What does the black novelist write about in the new Obama world?
Pearl Cleage is fast out of the gate with her answer: Write about the election itself, as well as the schism it created (or revealed) between the old civil-rights guard and the new generation of black leadership. Cleage tackles all of this, plus the usual themes -- family, love and romance -- in her seventh novel, "Till You Hear From Me."
The story centers on prodigal daughter Ida B. Wells Dunbar (Cleage is not subtle with names), who, in the wake of Obama's historic election, reluctantly returns home to Atlanta to check on her aging father, the Rev. Horace A. Dunbar, a civil-rights icon. Their relationship is rocky, if loving, and a viral YouTube clip featuring the reverend sounding strangely myopic and small-minded makes Ida wonder what's happening to the freedom-fighting, justice-loving man she used to know. To make matters worse, she also has to tell him that the impressive White House gig she's been bragging about has yet to materialize, perhaps because the Obama folks are annoyed at the reverend's unwavering support for the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Meanwhile, another prodigal child is also returning to Atlanta: Wes Harper, a big-time political operative who was Ida's high school crush. Wes is the son of Rev. Dunbar's closest friend, but he comes with his own agenda: abetting, for a profit, a Republican scheme to purge voter rolls.
Cleage's method of novel-writing is to go broad rather than deep, and it usually works for her fans. Here, she hopscotches across so many black cultural touchstones as to be nearly dizzying, touching on everything from black liberation theology to Anita Baker's "Rapture," from Patrice Lumumba to Tyler Perry. She even (I think) coins a term that I hope catches on across the country: "Tavis Smiley Syndrome," which is marked by an obsessive tendency to criticize, nitpick or otherwise whine about Obama. Ida diagnoses the disorder in her mother after the latter makes a snarky comment about "the Great God Obama." "Both my parents voted for the man," Ida comments, "and in their hearts, they realize how lucky we are to have him, but it's almost like they can't admit it, even to themselves. Tavis Smiley Syndrome. Easy to recognize, impossible to argue."
But Cleage's central focus seems to be the tension between racial solidarity and naked individualism, between loyalty to race and family and loyalty strictly to one's self. And it's here that the novel might have benefited from a longer gestation period. There's more delay than true conflict, more lecturing than deep exploration. It's clear from the start where Cleage thinks our loyalties should lie. Vilifying your villains is a temptation for every writer, but a novel is only as deep as its most shallow character. Unfortunately, the bad guys here are ballot-thin.
What Cleage gets right, as in her previous novels, is the strength and warmth of the people of the Atlanta community in which Ida and her father live. The scenes of them and others laughing, joshing, cooking and eating are full and rich. Had she brought the same complex understanding to Wes and his villainous political colleagues, this would have been a far more interesting book.
But, hey, we're just getting started. There's still plenty of time for the Great American Novel About Race in the Obama Age. Writers: to your keyboards.
McLarin is an essayist, novelist and writer-in-residence at Emerson College.