Ishmael Reed


By Ray Sawhill

You don’t turn to Ishmael Reed’s fiction for fully-rounded characters in whose detailed and textured world you lose yourself only to re-emerge refreshed and renewed. You turn to it for zig-zaggy energy, iconoclastic brains, and freaky satire. Novels such as “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” and “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down” — if those titles make you smile, you’ll probably enjoy the books — are less likely to call to mind comparisons with “Middlemarch” than they are with “Krazy Kat,” R. Crumb, and “Richard Pryor Live in Concert.” They’re like underground comix for the literary audience.

Reed, perhaps the premier trickster figure of current American letters, is a whirlwind of industry and deviltry. He has written plays, as well as volumes of poems and essays, and has founded small magazines and a prize-awarding literary organization, the Before Columbus Foundation. Although generally well-reviewed, and turned to by the media for his reliably corrosive observations and commentary, he has seldom gotten the credit he has earned as a literary innovator. (It’s the fate of humorists not to receive the recognition they deserve for their achievements as technicians, let alone artists.) In “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972), for instance, Reed mixed up fictional and historical figures, and spliced newsreel and fantasy elements into his story lines, three years before E.L. Doctorow was lauded for doing similar things in the smoother and more polished “Ragtime.”

Usually at his best in short bursts of invention and ridicule, Reed may be more valuable as a provocateur than for any of his individual works, some of which are reminders of how exhausting and antic ’60s-style writing can be. And recently his attitudes have taken a more earnest, and more predictably multicultural, turn than his fans might prefer. (It’s a lot more fun watching Reed go nuts than it is learning what he actually believes.) But when he’s on his game, no writer has been better at conveying how crazy, man, crazy our racial jambalaya can render a soul. His most sustained performance, and the best place to start, is “Escape to Canada,” in which he plays harlequin changes on the traditional slave narrative.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.

Terry McMillan


By Ray Sawhill

Bookstores had never before been home to anything like Terry McMillan’s tour to promote her 1992 novel, “Waiting to Exhale.” Her appearances attracted mobs of ardent female fans. And when she performed passages from her book, the stores turned into call-and-response arenas, with women standing up to testify to their feelings and shout out their likes and dislikes. This was one writer who had hit a nerve. (Inexplicably, the listless 1995 movie adaptation stirred audiences up as effectively as the book had.) A soap opera about four black women in Phoenix — their jobs, their hair, their two-timing no-good men, etc. — the book is one of those innumerable women’s novels in which friends, through all their ups and down, check in with each other periodically, and together and alone watch life’s cycles wheel by. In white hands these days, this is almost always a spent form. With her bawdy humor and unashamed pride in achievement, and with her relish for fleshly and material pleasures, McMillan brought it rousingly back to life. There aren’t many middlebrow page-turners that offer anything like her frankness and sass.

Her success helped trigger off a still-running controversy about whether or not black women writers beat up on black men. (They often do, and sometimes do so entertainingly). It also alerted the publishing industry to the existence of a large group of underserved readers hungry for fiction in which they could see their own lives. The industry responded promptly, and, since then, works from what might be called the “You go, girl!” school of fiction (Bebe Moore Campbell, J. California Cooper) have become a staple in bookstores and on bestseller lists.

McMillan’s first two novels — “Mama” and “Disappearing Acts” — are also lively airplane reads. (Avoid her most recent effort, the dizzy “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” unless your appetite for breathlessly narcissistic gab is really epic). If you’re in the market for something similarly female and full-bodied, why not try the marvelous Lee Smith, who writes lyrically about white mountain folk, or that sturdy entertainer Susan Isaacs, who writes humorous mysteries about Long Island Jews?

©1999 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.