Black Deutschland: Darryl Pinckney writes a convoluted and oddly seductive novel
by DREW ROWSOME
It doesn't always start with a suitcase. Sometimes things begin with the wrong book. Berlin meant boys, Isherwood said. Fifty years after his adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany's crimes by loving a black boy like me.
The first paragraph of Black Deutschland is as compelling as the blurb. They are also both extremely deceptive. I dove into Black Deutschland eager for Berlin adventures, sexual soap operas, '80s reminiscence and viewing that world through the framework of a highly literate (Edmund White raves!) gay black man. The first few chapters drew me in despite the difficult and relentless stylization. Author Darryl Pinckney has structured Black Deutschland in what is a more calculated version of William S Burroughs' cut and paste method.
A paragraph may not relate to the paragraph that precedes or follows it. Time is fractured, one has to pay very close attention and get used to skipping forward and back in time and space. The technique pays off shockingly well in several instances, in the same way that John Irving will leave out a fact or important plot point so that the reader suddenly discovers it. But most of the time, initially, it is very frustrating: Black Deutschland is not a casual read.
As well Black Deutschland is packed with references to architecture, classical music (real and invented) and obscure, occasionally biblical, literature. There are a multitude of secondary characters who are deliberately kept at arm's length making it hard to emotionally invest enough to keep track as the narrative and timeline jumps around. Many of the secondary characters are pretentious - artists, idealists, pragmatists or Marxists - and that adds to the emotional chill. Worst of all there are, to begin with, no boys. Two factors - AIDS and recovery from addiction - have left the protagonist unable to allow himself the emotional risk of opening up even enough for a quick one-night-stand.
Less than halfway through, I stalled. I put the book down and wandered into less literary waters to clear my head. But I was still carrying Black Deutschland around in my bag, something was nagging at me and compelling me to continue. Ironically it is when the lead returns to Chicago that Black Deutschland gains strength and forward momentum. Racial politics, class politics, journalism, family strife and literal madness are stirred into the prose and, though it is still fractured reading, there is muscle in the words and the ideas coalesce around the edges to become manifest.
Pinckney has a habit of describing people by their hair - a shyster lawyer is described as, "His hair smelled like James Brown's music" - and when that metaphor is layered on to the architecture used to describe Berlin, Black Deutschland cracks wide open. On a personal level I also applied my only knowledge of Berlin, the trilogy of albums where David Bowie achieved lyrical perfection using Burroughs' cut and paste method, to the text. If I treated it as music, as themes and motifs and plots that ebbed and flowed, that surfaced to reveal emotions before making room for another melody line, it became a pleasure to read rather than a chore.
It also helps that there are two love interests introduced though they are both treated rather abstractly and obliquely. Neither has enough erotic power to crack the shell around the protagonist as he attempts to recover from addiction, coming out, racial bias, ego and too much education. Unfortunately that lack of erotic power, aside from a few charged passages, also keeps Black Deutschland simmering when it should have boiled over. Even the fall of the Berlin wall is muted and the goings-on in a sleazy gay bar (the regulars and proprietors of whom deserve a book of their own) is only sleazy because we are told, never shown, it is. (Though it should also be noted that a character's fall from grace is always far more lurid and interesting than his recovery process, a truism that Pinckney almost subverts)
By the final chapters, I found myself reading compulsively. Hints that have lurked on the periphery became knives, the one big shocker that had been siting in plain sight gave me a literal start. I finished Black Deutschland and puzzled over what I thought of it. I had been moved intellectually and certainly felt for the central character though I did not empathize. Curious I picked Black Deutschland up and began to read the first few pages again. I am now almost to the halfway point of a re-read. And I am enjoying it immensely, the clues or ideas I skipped over or missed, are adding power to the story and a richness to the experience.
Perhaps White's intellect, or patience with difficult prose, allowed him to experience the joys of Black Deutschland on a first read. I still feel it is deceptive to sell Black Deutschland as a "gay" or a "black" novel with special insight into the human condition as experienced by either or the combination. The alienation caused by the addictions, and the protagonist is more concerned about his ability to resist a glass of wine or where he will house his only-opened once boxes of books, may explain the stylistic ticks. The protagonist has an interior monologue at the halfway point that was a statement I noted but didn't apply in time,
People say, live in the moment, but the moment was the only thing I was good at. I could make the moment last, stretch it out for days, years, my whole life.
Pinckney doesn't name check Isherwood again until the next to last paragraphs, and divulges a piece of information that is the key to the entire book. Whether that is a worthwhile climax or a letdown after a long teasing, will depend on how much joy one found in Pinckney's use of language and how much tolerance one has for a gay black experience that insists on being rigorously intellectual at the expense of being passionate. I'm still puzzling, as I continue to re-read, what I think.