The August 2014 police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the subsequent protests and riots made St. Louis and its suburbs among the latest epicenters in the Great American Race Drama. This violence came as something of a shameful surprise to residents, black and white, of the St. Louis area, where race relations are not especially good but seemed so stable in their nearly elegant inequity as to be almost a form of etiquette.
St. Louis, known as the gateway to the West, is not a Southern city (although Missouri was a slave state), but it ranks among the most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the United States. And it might be for that reason that so many in the city, both black and white, thought that the Ferguson uprising was out of character; not because its African Americans were docile, but that they were inert, paralyzed by the powerful paternalism of St. Louis’s racial bigotry. As the middle-class doctor in Jabari Asim’s St. Louis novel, “Only the Strong,” ruminates when thinking about the bus boycott that occurs in the fictional “Gateway City” several years after the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, “That was just like black folks in Gateway, always slow to come to a boil.”
Asim, editor in chief of the Crisis, the organ of racial news and polemics launched by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1910 for the NAACP, is a native of St. Louis and a former book review editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (He is also a former deputy editor of The Washington Post’s Book World.) With “Only the Strong,” he has written a debut novel that picks up, in many respects, where his collection of short fiction, “A Taste of Honey” (2010), leaves off.
Asim’s interconnected short stories, (think Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” or Gloria Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place”), recount the lives of the black residents of North Gateway in 1968. (North St. Louis is overwhelmingly black; south St. Louis is overwhelmingly white.)
“Only the Strong,” less nostalgically driven, is about characters in the same area of the city in 1970. The novel’s title is from Jerry Butler’s 1968 R&B hit, “Only the Strong Survive.” The lyrics include the line, “You’ve got to be a man, you’ve got to take a stand.” So, even though the song is about a man being told to bear up after his girlfriend has left him, it could easily have been heard as a song telling blacks to “man up” in their struggle for freedom. (It was not uncommon for black audiences to read political messages in apolitical R&B songs of the 1960s, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ 1964 “Dancing in the Streets” being the most obvious example.)
Each of the novel’s three sections is devoted to a particular set of characters: “Leg Breaker” is about “Guts” Tolliver, who “had put men to death with everything from a hairpin to a sleagehammer,” but who is, as one character observes, “a good man, even if you’ve done some bad things.” We follow his relationship with his gangster boss, Ananias Goode; the various characters who populate Tolliver’s taxicab office; his relationship with star Gateway (read St. Louis Cardinals) baseball player Rip Crenshaw; and his on-again, off-again relationship with his lover, Pearl.
The second part, “Tenderness,” is about pediatrician Artinces Noel, a sainted figure affiliated with the local black hospital (based on the actual Homer G. Phillips Hospital where black St. Louisans were treated until it closed in 1979). She regularly “revives herself with her mantra: Save every child. Save every child. Save every child.” She falls into a rather implausible sexual relationship with gangster Goode, who is “out to make the North Side his personal realm,” and she cares for her ward, Charlotte.
The third part, “Trouble,” is mostly about Charlotte’s adventures at a local black college, and it contains the novel’s bloody denouement as Guts must save both Charlotte and Artinces from gangsters who want revenge against Goode.
There are, to be sure, many secondary characters in all of this, from a militant wiseacre to a good-natured thief, rather the assortment one would expect in a black novel set in a big city in 1970. In fact, the characters are predictable, almost stock and formulaic, as is the melodramatic story itself.
What makes this novel engaging is how the author evokes a place, a physical and emotional geography (actual St. Louis street names and places are used throughout), a vision of the complex moral texture of an urban black community, both historically and psychically.
Thus, the book’s great strength is not its sociological verisimilitude, but rather its conjuration of the competing myths that govern the imagination of urban blacks: The first is the social Darwinism of the black community where only the strong survive and where the strong prey upon the weak, the code of the gangster, which is why Artinces calls Goode “a Darwinist.” But the second myth, as powerfully ensconced in the black urban mind as the first, is the strong protecting the weak, of all sharing the meal at the table, of “giving back” and sacrifice, the code of the church. So, Guts the killer is the protector of abused women in the end, and it is a gentle intellectual who ends the protest at the black college by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to the police.
Although “Only the Strong” is, in some respects, an unexceptional novel, in the light of Ferguson, it’s affecting, even touching, in telling something about the way black people live.
Early is a professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
On June 18 at 6:30 p.m., Jabari Asim will be at Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW.
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ONLY THE STRONG
Bolden. 276 pp. Paperback, $15