“I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. The perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out his story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.”
“I listened to the boys outside, downstairs, shouting and cursing and laughing. Their laughter struck me for perhaps the first time. It was not the joyous laughter which—God knows why—one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this also, lay the authority of their curses.”
“This life, whatever it was, had made him older and thinner and it had deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved.”
“So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of the hotels and the apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood.”
When I finished reading Sonny’s Blues I just leaned back in my chair, rubbed my fingers into my eyes and exhaled a deep, deep breath. Blew it out through my lips, and sat there, spent. Sonny’s Blues. Now that’s a knock-out punch story. There’s no formula there, like in Isaac Babel’s My First Goose. There’s no trick, there’s no sleight of hand. There’s no one key sentence on which all hinges, no one moment in which the truth is revealed. Instead, it’s like the slow rising of something awful and dangerous and true from the depths of the ocean, something vast and undeniable and when it finally breaches the surface you realize that it’s been down there all along, this truth, this terrible thing, and it took the writing of a master to coax it up to the light and into your awareness.
Sonny’s Blues. What can one take away from it, from a craft point of view? It was hard to remain removed from the story, to keep a weather eye out for Baldwin’s moves. About halfway through I just lost my sense of self and read it like a man downing a glass of water, no thought no reflection just an imperative need to consume.
It’s a longer story, more complex and nuanced, but all of it works towards the goal. What is that goal? The plight of African Americans growing up on the killing streets of Harlem, perhaps. What causes that plight? Racism and poverty and drugs and bad schools and more. The themes are too large to pin down, the movement to vast to analyze. What you have is Baldwin writing about something powerful and terrible and yet shot through with moments of beauty and hope so tragic because even a moment’s solace is always contextualized by the barbarity that’s sure to follow.
What makes this great is that the characters are normal, they’re school teachers, high school drop outs, musicians, brothers, yet they become more when illuminated by Baldwin’s prose, by his flashes of insight, by his ability to portray them in such a light that the reader feels that it is he that possesses this superior ability to penetrate into the hearts of these men and women and divine what’s going on. Sonny and the narrator are struggling to figure out their lives, to keep their heads above water, to not give in to anger and weakness and fear, but they don’t necessarily understand the world around them, or even themselves. Baldwin opens the door and lets us look inside, and that’s where his true talent lies.