BREAKING ICE An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction Edited by Terry McMillan Viking. 690 pp. $24.95; Penguin paperback, $10.95
HERE IS a wonderfully generous and diverse collection of prose fiction by our most gifted African-American writers, gathered together by the young African-American novelist Terry McMillan, who attributes her decision to become a writer to an early encounter with a college text called Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, and who notes, surprisingly, that there has not been a new anthology of such fiction for over 17 years. Breaking Ice, a huge book priced at only $10.95 in the paperback version, must be the literary bargain of the season, as well as a literary milestone certain to be read eagerly and instructively by young writers, among others, for years to come.
Breaking Ice includes a candid introduction by McMillan that begins, "As a child, I didn't know that African-American people wrote books," and a theoretically minded preface by John Edgar Wideman that is both lyric and polemical. Wideman argues that minority writers hold certain advantages in times of cultural breakdown, reorientation and transition since they have learned to inhabit the majority culture without being of it: "In order to endure slavery and oppression it's been necessary to cultivate the double-consciousness of seer, artist, mother." Though in Wideman's unsentimental view history is a cage, even at times a trap, marginality has "refined our awareness, our proficiency in non-literary modes of storytelling"; it has provided canny black artists with rich material -- "tricknology explored and deconstructed, techniques reversed, foregrounded, parodied." Many of the selections in Breaking Ice, especially those by Wideman and his generation, substantiate these claims. In the most memorable work, the way in which language is deployed is as important as the "story" itself.
For instance, here is the narrator, Hazel, of Toni Cade Bambara's "My Man Bovanne": "Blind people got a hummin' jones if you notice. Which is understandable completely once you been around one and notice what no eyes will force you into to see people, and you get past the first time, which seems to come out of nowhere, and it's like you in church again with fat-chest ladies and old gents gruntin' a hum low in the throat to whatever the preacher be saying." This much-anthologized story is a masterpiece of the vernacular; I've probably read it a half-dozen times, and each time it flows by like a piece of music, funny and heart-rending and perfect in its rhythm. So brilliant a writer is Toni Cade Bambara that one of the story's serious themes -- the ideological conflict between a generation of middle-aged blacks and a generation of politically aroused younger blacks -- can almost pass right by, unheralded. This is the art of understatement and subtlety.
Another dazzling technical achievement is Wanda Coleman's "Lonnie's Cousin," which limns for us, deadpan, the doomed relationship between a young black woman and her white husband, while the very protagonists remain self-deceived and ignorant; another, remarkable in its synthesis of raucous humor, socio-political insight, and what might be called the mythopoetics of inner-city tragedy, is Colleen McElroy's "Sister Detroit," which begins: "When Buel Gatewood bought his Gran Turismo Hawk, folks around Troost Avenue and Prospect Boulevard hadn't learned how to talk about Vietnam yet." (For all its brevity and refusal to succumb to self-pity or rage, "Sister Detroit" is as powerful a work of fiction as any about the "Vietnam experience" as suffered by its American victims. Read it.)
There is Melvin Dixon's "The Boy With Beer," which packs the emotional density of a novel into less than 10 pages, as a young man comes to terms with his long-denied homosexuality; there is Darryl Pinckney's "Sweet Evening Breeze" that provides, in impeccably measured prose, an account of the young black writer's association with the white writer Djuna Barnes, then elderly, living in extreme seclusion in the West Village -- "Pessimism Miss Barnes wore regally as a tweed suit . . . Everything and everyone came down to the lowest common denominator in the end." There is a selection from Gloria Naylor's much-praised novel, Mama Day, that might be called a lover's duet, a tour-de-torce of male/female voices. Terry McMillan's "Ma' Dear" provides a shrewd look at the writer's own generation from the point of view of an older woman as she contemplates her life in a rapidly changing world, as well as an investigation of the solitude of old age; Arthur Flowers's elegiac "De Mojo Blues" provides another Vietnam experience as suffered by a returning veteran who finds himself disoriented and bitter, unexpectedly estranged from his own generation of African-Americans. And there is John Edgar Wideman's virtuoso "Fever," a mesmerizing account of the 1893 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia which no effort of summary or paraphrase can adequately suggest -- language as both music and visionary medium.
Naturally, many of the selections in Breaking Ice touch upon racial issues. Charles Johnson's skillful "China" contains a real plot twist, which I am not about to disclose here, as a hypochondrical African-American of flabby middle-age baffles, then annoys, then frightens, and finally awes his narrow-minded wife, as he converts to both Zen Buddhism and Kung-fu; Cliff Thompson's "Judgment" tells of a bi-racial romance between undergraduates at a small college in "Nowhere, Pennsylvania"; Clarence Major's "Such Was the Season," narrated by an older woman, boldly and funnily takes up the highly topical issue of linguistic propriety: "The mayor . . . went on preaching . . . 'bout what was good for Negroes. (He didn't say Negroes. He said blacks, but I don't like the word blacks, never did. You can call me old-fashioned if you want, I won't care. Back in the sixties when all the kids started using black I tried for a while to take it up, but it just didn't feel right on my tongue 'cause my generation, you see, always thought of black as a bad word. You called somebody black back in the thirties and forties when I was coming up, you insulted them something terrible.)" Now, it seems that "black" has been superseded by "Afro-American"; "Afro-American" in turn has been superseded by "African-American" -- though "black" is still acceptable. While politically charged language has the power to influence our thinking, thus our behavior, there are times of crisis in history when people of integrity and good faith truly don't know how to identify themselves, collectively or individually. NO WONDER that two of the most convincing stories in this anthology, Xam Wilson Cartier's "Muz and the Sphere of Memory" and Wesley Brown's aptly titled "I Was Here But I Disappeared," turn upon the very issue of the "identifying" self.
In her editorial capacity, Terry McMillan received nearly 300 submissions for Breaking Ice out of which, as she says, she chose 57 writers in three categories: seasoned, emerging and unpublished. Among the "seasoned" writers, in addition to those I've mentioned, are David Bradley, Rita Dove, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, John A. Williams, William Melvin Kelley, James Alan McPherson, Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones, Samuel R. Delany and Ernest Gaines. It is a testament to the editor's judgment and the high quality of the writing throughout that one could hardly distinguish between the categories in terms of originality, depth of vision and command of language. The only criticism I might offer is that writers might have been better served if their contributions were clearly designated in the text as "stories" (thus self-contained) or "excerpts from longer works" (thus justifiably incomplete, with abrupt endings). But this is a minor point that in no way detracts from the worth of this important anthology.
Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches at Princeton, is the author of the recent novel "Because It is Bitter and Because It is My Heart" and of the forthcoming novella "I Lock My Door Upon Myself."