OVER THE PAST decade or so, Coleman Dowell has amazed and puzzled his readers with a series of strikingly designed works unconventional enough to deserve a shelf to themselves. No two of the five novels he has published resemble each other, but all share a theme which binds them in sequence: the compulsive way we use our imaginations to re-create and distort those we wish to love, and the loneliness and estrangement which result.
In Island People, Dowell's dream-enigmatic 1976 novel, a writer in retreat on a small island off New England is transformed as he interacts with the island people of the title, obsessed presences generated by different strata of his own imagination. With White on Black on White Dowell returns to this setting, but this time the reader is set among people made inaccessible to each other by racial anxieties and the sexual obsession they engender.
"I began to write this as a sort of sixties comedy," Dowell says, "but somewhere in the middle of the attempt a remark was made that made me change my focus from a short story to a novel. The catalytic remark was that white men see black men as criminals and black men see white men as queers. Ugly as it is, there's truth in it, for both views can be seen as castration attempts."
The novel which resulted is made up of three concentric stories, each an autobiographical account by one of the characters, but all seemingly related and embellished by a single person, a novelist who remains anonymous throughout the book. Although each of the composite stories reflects and extends upon the others convincingly, when juxtaposed they reveal so many coincidences, symmetries and seemingly contrived correspondences that the reader becomes uncomfortably aware of his informant's inability to keep his own obsessions from refracting what has been related to him by others.
Like the writer in Island People, this novelist, whose story forms the book's first section, is setting up housekeeping together with a pet dachshund on an island to escape city tensions. This time, however, there is a third member to the party: Calvin Hartshorne, a disturbed young black Vietnam War veteran with whom the writer, who is homosexual, is infatuated. As narrated in the writer's journal their island existence is a Grand Guignol of sexual psychological warfare. Calvin torments the writer with hostile aloofness, constantly hinting at an affair he may be having with a white woman who lives on the island; the writer retaliates with jealous surveillance, and attempts to control Calvin by exploiting his simplicity and superstitiousness. Innumerable jabs are made at emotionally vulnerable spots, and the pressure builds until Calvin explodes, seizing a hammer and threatening murder.
By now the reader is losing trust in the narrator. Calvin has been presented so selectively that he threatens to retreat into the racist caricature, sexy and dangerous, with which the writer titillates and torments himself. His sexual presence eclipses almost everything else, with hints of his confusion and volatility, his frustrated respect and affection for the writer revealed only inadvertently in the pages of the journal. And the writer, reacting to the Calvin he has created for himself, sneaks around like a thief, spying on the black man and placing fraudulent phone calls to check up on him. Physical violence is avoided, but both are already mutilated by the intense and destructive emotions they have inflicted on each other.
The same lethal mixture of interracial sexual obsession and contempt saturates the two accounts the writer presents following his own, but in each the grotesquerie is stepped up to the point where the reader's suspicion of his narrator is intensified. In the first Ivy Temple, a young woman he meets at a party, relates to the writer the story of her own sexual obsession with black men. After an affair with a black coworker during a civil rights demonstration in Selma, Ivy is drawn into a downward spiral more horrifying than that which overtook her namesake, Faulkner's Temple Drake.
In the final and most striking story Cayce Scott, a black policeman who had been Ivy's childhood friend, attends a dinner party given by an imperious old woman who seems to straddle the two races, and who focuses the spirit of racial obsession into a long and potently written monologue.
In these two narratives misperception is pushed to the limit, with stories embedded in other stories, and everything at the mercy of a disturbed narrator. It remains for Cayce Scott to cut through all this in his long reflection on the book's action which forms a kind of coda to White on Black on White. As a black policeman who is feared by dishonest whites, Scott reverses Dowell's stereotype, and emerges as the only character in the novel not defeated by his obsessions. Through his revelations, presented as transcribed tapes untampered with by the writer-narrator, Dowell permits the other characters, shadowy and refracted until now, to be more completely revealed. Cayce's concluding demand for cleansed perceptions, for love based on sincerity and respect, is angrily passionate and has great emotional power.
The Countryman Press presents White on Black on White as a "docu-novel" dealing with interracial relations in the United States, but race really doesn't seem to be at the center of this book. It serves as a vehicle for the more disturbing insights Dowell offers on the power of obsession, particularly sexual obsession. His tortured island people must transcend their fantasies by learning to respect the ones they wish to love, if they are to achieve the love and respect which can redeem them.