TPR Challenge #6 - James Baldwin

I have only a vague recollection of bringing this book home from Barnes & Noble as part of a gift card spree.  It has sat on my TBR shelf probably because each time I picked it up, I had to remind myself of why I bought it.  The only real reason is my respect for James Baldwin.  Go Tell it on the Mountain was important to me some years ago, and I now teach "Sonny's Blues" with almost religious fervor.  When Baldwin is good, he's very, very good.  Unfortunately, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone did not inspire any similar ravings. 

The basic thrust of the book is Leo Proudhammer, a highly successful black actor (mostly stage, at least one movie credit), who has a major heart attack on stage.  He is only 39.  The rest of the story takes place in the form of flashbacks as he recuperates.  As a narrative device, the flashback doesn't bother me, but I do mind here the extraordinarily detached feeling we get about Leo in the present tense.  We rarely know what he's feeling during his recovery; we don't even understand how much time has passed during these recollections.  Even as we continue to receive revelations of the different arenas of his past, we know very little more about him than when we began.  We learn that he is bisexual, atheist, not terribly political, has had a long-standing, on-and-off relationship with white Barbara and a more recent relationship that might be love with Black Christopher.  But despite this information, Leo remains psychologically detached.  How can we read almost 500 pages of nothing but Leo's thoughts (first-person narrative here is an odd choice) and memories and not get any real sense of internal struggle or psychological development?  How can we know that he had sex with his older brother, Caleb, and not hear one utterance on that undoubtedly important event through the rest of the book?  It is completely unreasonable to think he would not occasionally question that part of his past.  It is completely unrealistic to think that once his brother becomes a preacher and has an hours-long talk with Leo, he might never even allude to an embarrassment, guilt, or shame over their shared experience.  It just doesn't work.  And though this event was the most disturbing to my sensibilities, there were many other instances where I felt an incident was related with no real contribution from Leo at all. 

The ending was another frustration.  The third, and final, section of the book is called "Black Christopher."  I kept finding it odd that we had spent so little time discussing his relationship with Christopher in this long section.  With about 50 pages left in the book, Christopher appears on the scene.  In that final 50 pages, he jive-talks, orders Chinese food, drives Leo around San Francisco, takes him to a club, and insists that they need guns.  Then, just as suddenly, Christopher (the supposed love of Leo's life) is absent again, and Leo is waiting in the wings ready to perform again.  Someone more astute than me might be able to justify such an abrupt ending and lack of character development, but such a justification did not occur to me.  It simply did not work.  I was just glad to have finished the book.

The The Paris Review interview took place in 1984, a mere three years before he died.  He was certainly a writer in repose at that point although he talked of the work he was still undertaking, and indeed he published 2 collections of essays and a novel between the interview and his death.  But his was an established voice; he no longer had to hawk his goods on street corners.  The interview, however, reveals him to still be angry, to still be fighting battles, to still be seeking some greater self-awareness. 

This searching quality is shown in the most teachable quote from the interview:
When you're writing, you're trying to find out something that you don't know.  The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don't want to know, what you don't want to find out.  But something forces you to anyway. (242)
It's interesting to view this quote through the lens of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.  It forces the question: what did Baldwin not want to find out?  What part of his tumultuous identity was he probing the most insistently?

The final exchange in the interview refers to Baldwin's reputation in some circles as a prophetic writer.  I'm not sure I've read enough Baldwin to see the prophecies, but one element of this interview confirms this view for me.  He says,
When I was a kid the world was white, for all intents and purposes, and now it is struggling to remain white - a very different thing.
Especially in this day of "return-to-our-roots" politics, Baldwin's statement must be hailed as prophetic.  And I, for one, am glad that very different struggle is finally taking place.

I am also glad to be finished with this work and ready to enjoy something new.  I plan to read Rebecca Stead's Newbery Medal Winner first and then to tackle David Grossman's beauty, which has been sitting tantalizingly on my desk for a week or more.  Here's to next books!


  1. Here's to next books!

    Here, here! Too bad to hear that this Baldwin is not the best Baldwin; I've only read a few essays by him, and am looking forward to discovering his best work in the future. Five hundred pages, though, is definitely a long haul for so little feeling of coherence or psychological insight. Congrats on being able to move on!

  2. Thanks, Emily. I'm just getting started in the Grossman now, and I'm covered up with work at the moment, so it's been just sitting on various flat surfaces taunting me. I'll be grading away, promising myself a few pages when I finish this stack. I just hope it doesn't disappoint. High expectations can certainly be a curse.