Another Country

The Penguin Classic cover features red cut-outs of figures layered over a neutral background.
Penguin Classic edition

by Ben H.

“Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen – for the weight of this city was murderous” 

James Baldwin

Another Country is a novel that’s more like a play or a poem. Short descriptions set scenes like flashes of light, and dialogue propels us through the story. James Baldwin is brilliant and empathetic; his depiction of humanity is beautiful. Passages that make you weep are followed immediately by passages that make you laugh. Dark episodes in the cold rain follow erotic passages in warm apartments. Baldwin’s relentless prose attack zigs and zags at the reader, and he never lets up. He pulls the threads of the tangled ball of relationships at the center of the novel tighter and tighter. Another Country is addictive and almost unbearably tense. 

Baldwin explores race, gender, sexuality, religion, art, and life in America in the 1950s through the interactions of a group of memorable characters. First, we meet Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer, stumbling out of a movie theater in New York, disheveled and desperate. His experience as a black man in America is really the central pillar of the story. His wretched love/hate relationship with Leona, a white woman from the south, ruins both of their lives and sets a grim tone for a serious book. Vivaldo, a white man, is arguably the main character. Vivaldo is a struggling writer and Rufus’ best friend. Vivaldo is everywhere. He felt to me like a stand-in for James Baldwin himself.

France offers the reader a brief respite from the grimness of New York. We first meet Eric and his boyfriend Yves on a French beach. The passages set abroad are lovely and warm, while the scenes in New York are often brutal and freezing or unforgiving and sizzling. Baldwin’s depiction of France juxtaposed with that of America neatly illustrates the way Baldwin, a gay black man, felt in France versus the way he felt in the United States.

The many protagonists provide a narrative richness I really loved. Besides Rufus and Vivaldo, Cass (maybe my favorite character), Ida (Rufus’s sister and an incredible character), and Eric (in his own way the heartbeat of the book) are the other main players in this story of relationships and race. The New York Times compared Another Country to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and I think it’s a great comparison. Baldwin also brings the furious pace of a sax solo to his poetic novel. If you want to know what it’s like to read Another Country, listen to “Countdown” off of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Another Country really does have a momentous heft to it. Baldwin, like an alchemical wordsmith, achieved something magical with everyday material. On the surface, it’s just the story of a few overlapping relationships during the 50s. But by the time you turn the last page, it feels like you’re holding something vital in your hands. I really do believe that books like this can change the way people view and treat one another.

If you’ve already read Another Country, visit HCLS and see if we have a Baldwin that you haven’t yet read (or if we can recommend something similar). If you haven’t read Another Country, you have money in the bank. You can’t go wrong with Mr. Baldwin.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Authors and Stories For You and Me

Orange cover of On The Road by Jack Kerouac on the left with a black and white photo of the author on the right with his arms crossed.

By Eric L.

I like books and authors a lot, and periodically I will get on a kick and start reading books by a particular person and then read about the person.  

Jean-Louis Lebris de “Jack” Kerouac has always been one of my favorites, and he was one to celebrate jazz and the outdoors. Kerouac is the person that in theory personifies the “beat generation,” the beatniks, and the counterculture of 1950s America that inspired so many in the 1960s counterculture (which could be argued led to the push for progress in America).  

As a white Catholic from a middle-class background with a deep interest in the counterculture, his work spoke to me. I could feel his guilt for not conforming and appreciate his conservative Catholic hang-ups. His conflicted mind, introspective nature, desire for freedom, and the understanding that he was in some ways the observer and documentarian of counterculture and not so much the progenitor attracted me. 

Revisiting his work over the years, it always changes as the world changes, and more importantly as I change. Thank goodness, I’ve always grown more! I have recently been reading books and articles about Kerouac, re-reading the The Dharma Bums (available in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) after seeing it quoted in two books I was recently reading. The quote in one was, “Someday I’ll find the right words, and they’ll be simple.” I like this sort of searching and desire for simplicity. 

 

The book cover is a blank and white, bluish-tinted photograph of Jack Kerouac and fellow writer Neal Cassady.
Kerouac and fellow Beat Generation writer Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

I also re-watched the recent film adaptations of On the Road and Big Sur, both of which I’d recommend. The former HCLS owns in DVD format; the latter you can borrow using Interlibrary Loan. Some consider Big Sur one of his best novels. It’s the semi-autobiographical account his struggle with fame, depression, and addiction a decade after the publication of his most famous work, On the Road. The raw reality of addiction is sad to be sure, but it’s also a good read and viewing for the description and images of Big Sur. 

To be sure, there’s a lot not to like about Kerouac. The books and film adaptations are misogynistic, self-involved, and privileged in some respects. He drank himself to death at the age of 47, he never found the time know his own daughter, and had become truculent and seemingly illiberal near the end of his life. I could probably find some additional foibles. Conduct an internet search for his appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in the late 1960s; it’s pretty sad. 

For some reason, many of his contemporaries publicly and negatively commented on him, although John Updike later admitted he was jealous of his fame. James Baldwin described Kerouac’s work as “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense at that.” Charles Bukowski, another “beat” writer and poet who is controversial in many ways and the subject of several films, said Kerouac wasn’t that great of a writer, but suggested his fame came from the fact that he looked like a “rodeo star.”  

I’d disagree with Bukowski; there is some poetry in Kerouac’s prose and the performance aspect of it is amazing. Hearing and seeing him read his own work, which was inspired by jazz, is marvelous. His handsomeness certainly did not hurt his celebrity. I was reminded of his style while watching the young Amanda Gorman read and perform her great poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration.

It was a pretty radical endeavor to hang out in a jazz club in the late 1940s, and I was curious what was so great about this thing called jazz. I now know. Moreover, books concerning his romantic relationships with African Americans and his close relationships with openly gay people were verboten at the very least, and illegal in many places in the US in the 1950s. Moreover, Kerouac’s attraction to and writings about Buddhism interested me very much as a fellow Catholic. 

Kerouac’s explicit mentions of Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, and other authors piqued my curiosity about these people, and his books gave me a point of reference when reading James Baldwin’s perspective of a similar counterculture from the African American point of view. Really, his work just got me reading, dreaming, and thinking differently than I’d done before. In other words, I’d like to think I was better for it. And I’m fairly certain that these are the reasons why On the Road is still in our reading list section and assigned by English teachers.

I had this conversation with the members of my book group, and they assuaged my guilt a bit for still liking Kerouac. But the times they change, and we change, and maybe Kerouac would’ve changed, too, but maybe not. 

In some cases, there are things that should be left in the past, but I’d contend we shouldn’t dismiss the progressive nature of all art pell-mell. All of us are flawed in some way, and this makes us interesting in my opinion. Indubitably the merits of Kerouac’s work and his reputation are debatable. But Kerouac did reject the conforming ethos of post-war America (something many now want to return to). And personally, he made me feel as though others were attracted to things that don’t quite fit into mainstream American culture. 

My hope is that this bolsters the case for diverse stories, viewpoints, and authors. Everyone needs characters and stories they can relate to and find themselves in. I think it’s a magical feeling to realize there are people that are like you, that feel like you do. So keep reading to find relatable characters and stories. Come by the library and tell us about your interests. We might be able to help, or know someone who can, find the books and authors for you! 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.