PHILADELPHIA FIRE

By John Edgar Wideman

Holt. 199 pp. $18.95

NOVELIST John Edgar Wideman is easily the most critically acclaimed black male writer of the last decade. The author of 10 books, he received the PEN/Faulkner Award for his 1984 novel, Sent for You Yesterday, and extensive praise for Brothers and Keepers, his memoir of his brother Robert's imprisonment for armed robbery and felony murder. Each new work, such as his recent story collection Fever, is regularly featured on the front pages of the nation's various book review sections. A new, ambitious work of fiction by a writer as prolific and artistically uncompromising as Wideman is, therefore, a reason for celebration.

However, Wideman fans, of which I'm one, may be disappointed, if not downright confused, by Philadelphia Fire, his latest novel, which purportedly is about the May 13, 1985, assault by the City of Philadelphia on members of a black organization called MOVE. Eleven people who defied a police eviction order were killed in this widely covered incident, but Wideman's book is only tangentially about the event. It is less journalism than an impressionistic hymn to the dead in West Philly, not so much fictionalized history (or even a story) as a lyric, angry brooding on the excesses of white power, and in this sense brings to mind James Baldwin's use of the Atlanta child-murder case as a springboard for his own sociological reflections in The Evidence of Things Not Seen.

Divided into three parts, Philadelphia Fire opens with Cudjoe, a former teacher and writer (and Wideman's alter ego), learning of the MOVE disaster while in self-exile on the island of Mykonos. A drifter now, he feels himself to be "a half-black someone, a half-man who couldn't be depended upon" because "he'd married a white woman and fathered half-white kids" whom he believes he's failed. Cudjoe feels driven to find a lost boy named Simmie, "the only survivor of the holocaust on Osage Avenue." He returns to Philadelphia and begins his quest for the boy by interviewing Margaret Jones, a former member of the MOVE family.

MOVE's leader, says Jones, "taught us about the holy Tree of Life. How we all born part of it. How we all one family. Showed us how the rotten system of this society is about chopping down a Tree. Society hates health. Society don't want strong people. It wants people weak and sick so it can use them up . . . He taught us to love and respect ourselves . . . He said that every day. We must protect Life and pass it on so the Tree never dies."

As it turns out, this is as close as Cudjoe ever gets to unraveling the philosophy and history of MOVE, or to Simmie, who Jones says "just disappeared." A dinner with his erstwhile running buddy Timbro, a "class dude" now working as cultural attache' for the city's black mayor, reveals only that Philadelphia's officials regarded the MOVE people as "embarrassing" cultists who had to be removed because they, "didn't want no kind of city, no kind of government. Wanted to live like people live in the woods. Now how's that sound? . . . Mayor breaking his butt to haul the city into the twenty-first century and them fools on Osage want their block to the jungle."

In Part Two, the thin line that separates Wideman from Cudjoe ("Why this Cudjoe, then?" he asks. "Why am I him when I tell certain parts? Why am I hiding from myself?") disappears completely as this section opens with the author and his wife watching the MOVE fire on CNN. Wideman receives a call from his recently imprisoned son, broods on "the unmitigated cruelty of the legal system," and in a moving passage wonders, "Will I ever try to write my son's story? Not dealing with it may be causing the forgetfulness I'm experiencing . . . I do feel my narrative faculty weakening . . . What I'm doing or saying or intending engages me only on a superficial level. I commit only minimal attention, barely enough to get me through the drill I'm required to perform."

But mostly Part Two concerns Cudjoe's failed attempt to stage a production of "The Tempest," using black kids as performers, in a West Philly park in the late 1960s. This play is, Wideman writes, "figure within a figure, play within a play, it is the bounty and hub of all else written about the fire." Wideman's "authentically revised version of Willy's con" is, at bottom, the now familiar interpretation of Prospero as a white imperialist and Caliban as the colonized, and he invites us to see the MOVE tragedy as a "lesson . . . about colonization, imperialism, recidivism, the royal {expletive} over of the weak by the strong, colored by white, many by few . . ."

The final section, briefer than the others, focuses on a black derelict named J.B., a beggar who witneses a white businessman jump to his death from the 19th floor of the Penn Mutual Savings and Loan building, takes the dead man's briefcase, and is himself set on fire by white hooligans. Then it shifts back to Cudjoe attending a memorial service for the dead of Osage Avenue. "Hey fellas. It's about youall," he thinks. "If they offed them people on Osage yesterday just might be you today. Or tomorrow . . . because that day in May the Man wasn't playing. Huh uh. Taking no names. No prisoners . . . And here you are again making no connections, taking out no insurance."

And there you have it: a novel in which we learn nothing new about the MOVE incident, a book brimming over with brutal, emotional honesty and moments of beautiful prose lyricism (no one can sing the spiritual side of playing basketball better than Wideman), but by no means a page-turner. In a recent interview the author, who remains one of our most important fiction writers, said he chose to write about MOVE because, "My goal is not to let it disappear into the collective amnesia." In this noble intention, at least, Philadelphia Fire is not unsuccessful.

Charles Johnson is the author of "Middle Passage" and "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970."