by Ben H.
“Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen – for the weight of this city was murderous”
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).