My brother gave me this for Christmas, and I started it a week ago. He has genius-level taste for anything artistic, so I knew it would be great, and yet…I don’t know. Sometimes the barrier to opening a classic and getting through the first few pages is set a little higher. You can’t fall into a book like this, you have to stand up and walk in and pay attention to what’s going on around you.
So, I need to get this out of the way before moving any further. Another Country, is without any doubt, my new favorite book. Of all time.
How’s that for a book review? “This is THE book. The End.”
But it’s true. It has all the high themes–love, disillusionment, ambition, loss–and they’re set in the context of race relations in 50′s Manhattan. I’ve read the standard high-school selections on race, but never as an adult, and never from a work whose tone is so markedly adult. There is no parrying the rage and humiliation of the black characters, and the whole range of white reactions (from self-hatred and bewilderment to equal and opposite anger) is on display. The lack of the modern Disney filter on racial tensions is the key to its greatness. Baldwin’s characters say the unspeakable, and it’s a slap in the face even to the reader. We need works like this to clue us in to what the world was actually like sixty years ago, if we have any hope of understanding (and changing) what is happening today.
But it’s not a sermon. It’s beautiful. The language is surprising, in that it has that vintage directness and also describes relationships that are completely timeless. One example: a short passage in which a husband and wife are drinking in a bar with a few friends, the wife becoming sleepy as the night wears on:
“I might as well make the most of my night out. Only I’m kind of a dreamy drunk. Do you mind my head on your shoulder?”
“Mind?” He laughed. He looked at Vivaldo. ”Mind! Why do you think I’ve been knocking myself out, trying to be a success?” He bent down and kissed her, and something appeared in his boyish face, a single-mindedness of tenderness and passion, which made him very gallant. “You can put your head on my shoulder anytime. Anytime, baby. That’s what my shoulders are for.” And he stroked her hair again, proudly, as the waiter vanished with the empty glasses.
The other huge beauty of the book is its incredibly real and heartrending examination of love, particularly gay and bisexual relationships. You know, certainly, that same-sex couples have all the same issues and fears and joys, but they’re never examined in (most of) popular literature. I can’t summon the last time I read a passage, forgot it was describing two men, and instead thought, “Yes. That’s exactly what I think when I wake up next to my husband.” And of course, there are the differences, too: what is it like to truly not know which gender you’re most drawn to? What is it like to try to fumble through that while the rest of the world stares you down?
Baldwin handles all his characters with the same grace and respect, but no orientation or class is above a pervading undercurrent of isolation. Though the novel is a hand-off from one character to the next, most of the interactions are of a piece: one person asks another to love them, awkwardly and without much talent at reciprocity. They use sex as a proxy for connection, and try to climb over what’s already happened to create a life that doesn’t feel full of dissonance. This sense of confusion touches everyone, and you see the scraped up insides of all the city’s different wars.
There’s lightness, too; I’m not recommending this an exercise in Reading the Classics. People call each other “cat” and “daddy,” and the whole atmosphere is peopled by the novelists and singers and poets of the West Village when it was actually ground zero of Bohemia. Most uplifting? People can be incredibly, beautifully kind to each other, and Baldwin lets that shine through along with the loneliness. Four million stars. Begin immediately.