Great Book: Another Country, by James Baldwin

Ah, the sixties. Civil rights & the sexual revolution. James Baldwin's Another Country tells the story of a set of relationship; friends in New York City who hurt each other and love each other. This must have caused quite a scandal when it came out; it's a frank portrait of several mixed-race relationships, and some homosexual ones as well.

It's hard to say whether the format is more a series of personal portraits or more nearly a string of short stories, but it's definitely episodic. We begin with Rufus, a black musician hitting rock bottom after the end of a relationship, trying to crawl out. We continue with his friend Vivaldo (white), who falls in love with Rufus' sister Ida, and move on to Rufus' former lover Eric and their mutual married friends. I found Ida the most fully realized and attractive character; she has a rage and an ambition closely held within her, straining to get out, that struck a chord. She is the only major character whose inner monologue we don't get to see. Perhaps her restraint is as much internal as external.

This small set of friends engages in sex with startling casualness (and yet strange import....) There are four adulterous or cheating sexual relationships or encounters in this short book, and yet the words 'infidelity' or 'betrayal' aren't used once. The word 'guilt' is used only to dismiss its' validity.

They aren't very nice to each other. I don't think I'd like to have these people as my friends. I think that's the point; Baldwin is trying to portray human weakness in the face of the overwhelming forces of emotion and environment. Ida is the only character who tries to exert control over herself, to be actively moving toward her goals rather than reactive to her emotions, but the book ends with the breakdown of her control.

I can't say I agree with his premise, but it's a well-executed concept.

1 comment:

Bettijane said...

Yes, it was difficult to read - the violence - but well-described. Certainly shocking in its time, and a side of New York thrown in our face.

-Bettijane in Charleston WV