SUCH WAS THE SEASON By Clarence Major Mercury House. 213 pp. $16.95 300 Montgomery St., Suite 700 San Francisco, CA 94104
WITH HIS new novel, Clarence Major abandons the avant-garde experimentation that characterized his earlier work to tell the warm and reflective, more conventional story of Annie Eliza, matriarch of a proud Atlanta black family. But if Major (a writer who has said he "likes fictions that 'look back' at you with a life of their own") has turned away from experiments with form and language, it may be only a temporary change, for though more structured and accessible, Such Was the Season shares many affinities with Major's earlier novels. The difference would seem to be that instead of using postmodern techniques of European fiction to create fractured, disjointed worlds (a process roughly the inverse of Picasso's drawing on the inspiration of African sculpture for his breakthrough in painting), Major here uses an Afro-American vernacular to create an Afro-American world that is changing, yet remains rooted in history, tradition and love.
Major, 52, was born in Atlanta and grew up in Chicago, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. He published his first fiction and poetry in the 1950s while serving in the Air Force. Since then, he has published eight collections of poetry, a collection of essays and a dictionary of black slang, edited three anthologies and published five novels: All-Night Visitors, NO, Reflex and Bone Structure, Emergency Exit and last year's My Amputations, winner of the Western States Book Award for fiction.
Still, despite this impressive record, Major is not as well known as, say, Ishmael Reed, his contemporary in unconventional narrative. One reason may be that Major is not easily pigeonholed. He uses avant-garde European fictional techniques, but expresses Afro-American concerns. His work is rooted in black realities, but he has called "repulsive" the notion that anyone, critic or member of the community, should prescribe topics for black writers: "I'm against coercion from blacks and from whites."
Then, too, there is the fact that for the casual reader his work can be, at best, difficult, at worst, impenetrable. Emergency Exit, for example, includes lists from a telephone directory, graphs and paintings. In Reflex and Bone Structure, a writer discusses writing a mystery novel at the same time he himself is both suspect and detective in a murder mystery.
For Major, writers "begin with words and . . . end with words." But that is not to imply that he believes merely in art for art's sake, for he has also written that "a work that takes long root in its author's experience -- race being a part of that experience -- not only makes sense anywhere in any language, but also is likely either to raise hell or to lower heaven."
Such Was the Season seems rooted in Major's experience, and much of the book's success has to do with the warmth of the central character. From Annie Eliza's first words, "Last week was a killer-diller!" she speaks to us for more than 200 pages of things past and present in a voice that is always uniquely hers. The cumulative effect is such that she becomes that rarest of fictional creations -- not simply a character, but so much a person you'd swear you heard from her just the other day.
Annie Eliza's "killer-diller" week begins with the arrival of her nephew, a pathologist researching the causes of sickle cell anemia who has been invited to give a talk at Spelman College. Though Adam North is in his mid-forties and has traveled all over the world, Annie Eliza calls him by his childhood nickname -- "Juneboy." The nickname is significant, for underneath his professional exterior Adam is still a boy, a boy searching for the truth about his father and seeking to make peace with his memories of the South. Annie Eliza recognizes this: "Maybe his homecoming was a way of coming down to earth, finding out bout us, his peoples."
But she also uses Adam's nickname because that's how she is; Annie Eliza has done and seen too much to be taken in by appearances and by others' conceptions of themselves. Thus, despite their achievements, her sons and daughters-in-law -- among them a minister, a police officer and a just-announced candidate for the Georgia State Senate -- are still her children.
Adam's arrival is followed by other disruptions -- Renee, wife of Annie Eliza's minister son Jeremiah, holds a dinner party to announce that she is going to run for the State Senate. On the heels of Renee's announcement, her opponent is discovered wounded, apparently by a gunshot, in his home. And Renee gets wind of a scandal in a local fruit and vegetable company that begins to lead perilously close to the home of a family member.
WHILE THAT is, in admittedly sketchy synopsis, the strongest plot-line, the book's pleasures have less to do with what happens and more with Annie Eliza and her tale. And, though at first glance Major seems to have abandoned his postmodern explorations, Such Was the Season actually has much in common with those earlier works.
Adam's search for his roots (a search, ultimately, for himself) is like the search for selfhood of Eli Bolton, the protagonist of All-Night Visitors. Adam's account of the failure of his marriage -- among other things, his wife raised their children in a dark room, refusing to allow them into the light -- is as fantastic as anything in My Amputations. And Annie Eliza, like Bolton, is an unreliable narrator, not because we suspect her of lying but because what we learn has been filtered through her consciousness.
As narrator, Annie Eliza is maddeningly digressive, interrupting the flow of her story with girlhood remembrances of her parents, stories her Cherokee Indian father told her, lists of her purchases at the grocery store, summaries of her favorite soap operas, descriptions of television commercials and commentary like: "The girl in the commercial was bout as far from me and my concerns as a airplane is from a snake," or "Jeremiah had a series of sermons they televised from his church bout three years ago. I watched a few of them, but I don't think television is any proper way to respect or praise the Lord. It's got too much sin behind it to have a clean face." Her rich, warm voice is rooted in the black vernacular, occasionally ungrammatical, occasionally laced with a charming (and illuminating) malapropism like, "I wanted to talk prudentially with him and made him promise not to tell nobody about our conversation."
While these may sound like the ramblings of a garrulous old woman, Annie Eliza is actually a woman of experience, familiar with hard work and sacrifice. Widowed early, she worked washing and ironing for white families because "I had the boys. I wanted the boys to grow up to be important peoples. That was my objective: to give them a chance, a life." Her life and the lives of those around her mirror the progress of black people in the 20th century from rural South to the cities and then to the urban North, from agricultural peonage after Reconstruction to politics and the professions after the civil rights movement. It is hard to sum her up in a few words, as hard as it would be to sum up the life of someone who actually had lived, but Annie Eliza is, finally, a repository of folk wisdom and historical knowledge: her father's tales of the experience of blacks in World War I; the terrors of lynching; the relationships between blacks and Cherokees in 19th-century Georgia.
If this wonderfully realized novel is flawed, it is only because Major has chosen to tell his story solely from Annie Eliza's point of view. The material is rich enough to have sustained multiple points of view or even an omniscient narrator. Major can't be faulted for choosing to tell the tale his way, but one would like to know what has happened to Adam that enables him, near the end of the novel, to say to his family, "Through you I've rediscovered who I am and now I can go on from here." Not knowing what has happened is disappointing, though not so much as to detract from the pleasure of the hours spent in Annie Eliza's company.
David Nicholson is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Book World.