RECKLESS EYEBALLING; By Ishmael Reed. St. Martin's. 148 pp. $12.95.
ISHMAEL REED is one of life's great baloney slicers. Some of his novels -- especially Yellow Back Radio Broke- Down and The Last Days of Louisiana Red -- are satiric joys. His collection of essays, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, was an irreverent gas.
His new novel, Reckless Eyeballing, is not so much a jab as a bludgeon aimed at a corner of the cultural establishment. Feminist playwrights, Jewish producers, black militants -- they all come in for a little damage. And why not?
"What's your beef with me Bo Shmo?" says Loop Garo, the black cowboy hero of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. "No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons."
So yeah, why not have a black southern playwright named Ian Ball try to get his name off the "sex list" drawn up by tyrannical feminist theater moguls, Tremonisha Smarts and Becky French? And why not have Ball write a play called Reckless Eyeballing about a black man who was lynched because he stared at a white woman a bit too lasciviously? And why not have Smarts write a play about the virtues of Eva Braun?
Why not? Most prominent black writers have avoided, or have not found the time or inclination or luxury for, high comedy in their work. There are exceptions: Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison created some excellent comic characters and Langston Hughes' Simple stories are terrifically funny in spots. But black literature, and writing as a whole, is lucky to have Ishmael Reed around. If only for the fun of it.
Reed is perfectly positioned as a satirist. He is way outside the mainstream, any mainstream, be it black, academic, whatever. For years his main aesthetic interest has been in the mythologies of various countries, especially the voodoo myths of Haiti. As an editor of the journal Yardbird in California, Reed was at the head of a kind of American internationalist movement, promoting the work of an endless list of hyphenates: Chinese-Americans, Afro-Americans, Native Americans. His knowledge of so many cultures and subcultures provoked him, happily, more to irreverence than solemnity.
BUT A JOKE -- and Reckless Eyeballing is really an extended joke with a series of set pieces on feminism, anti-Semitism, militancy, etc. -- a joke either works or it doesn't. For the most part, Reckless Eyeballing doesn't.
Jokes are a concoction of image, timing and language. One missing piece, a dull stretch, an error of diction, and the whole contraption falls apart to the silence of the crowd. Richard Pryor is a brilliant satirist because of the sharpness of his images and mimicry, the timing of his spiels.
Reed has been as funny as Pryor at times but he seems off his game here. His one- liners are lame -- "His figure show(ed) him to be losing a private Battle of the Bulge" -- and the episodes are mainly long, spoken riffs on the particular idiocies of the theater and its attendant politicians.
What is so peculiar here is that Reed's cartoon characters are dated. The feminists, the "academic black Marxists," are all figures who seem more appropriate to a work of a decade ago. For example, the feminist play (which might be re-titled Springtime for Eva), is not the sort of thing you'd see on Off (or even Off-Off) Broadway these days.
But what's most disappointing here is Reed's haphazard prose. In some of his earlier work, he had a voice that could be at once giddy and razor-sharp. He had a real voice, distinctive, insulting, wild, a voice that answered to no political or aesthetic dogma, only to Ishmael Reed.
Reckless Eyeballing, however, is recklessly casual. The prose is dull. Here he is describing a beautiful woman: "If she was a piano she'd probably be a Baldwin. A piano that has hands and fingers could, well, play beautiful music upon."
Huh? Unfortunately, the sloppiness of these lines are representative of the rest of this short novel. The worst has happened. Ishmael Reed doesn't sound special. The ethnic jokes are so dull that they read -- unintentionally -- like the diatribes they are supposed to satirize.