So: Attention, lit-mart shoppers! I would suggest John Edgar Wideman for those ambitious readers who don’t mind tackling somebody whose reputation for demanding modernist writing is well-earned. Wideman goes in for stream-of-consciousness narrations and abrupt shifts in viewpoint that require some athleticism from his readers — think The Sound and the Fury, or the trickier passages in Ulysses — but his work is well worth the effort. His affecting memoir Brothers and Keepers might be a good introduction, followed by Philadelphia Fire, a novel loosely derived from the 1985 confrontation between the Philadelphia police and an eccentric back-to-nature cult called MOVE.
While I’m at it, let me give a shout out to Wesley Brown, who isn’t as prolific as I’d like him to be. I read his first novel, Tragic Magic, after taking his creative writing class at Rutgers University, and he was one of the first people I interviewed for a series of author profiles written for a Central Jersey print. The story follows a young Vietnam-era radical and conscientious objector who has just done a stretch in prison and is back on the street, trying to make sense of his life, women, masculinity and the dangerous cross-currents of life as a black man in the early 1970s. The prose plays in your head like a private performance of the greatest jazz group ever assembled: a Thelonious Monk melody line here, a Charlie Parker solo there, voices orchestrated by Duke Ellington and a stormy Charles Mingus bass line driving the whole thing forward. The more ambitious followup, Darktown Strutters, makes play with the rise of Jim Crow as it blends fictional and historical characters. Brown is sometimes compared with Ishmael Reed, and the comparison flatters both writers.
I would also recommend Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro, a gripping blend of historical fiction and noir that was one of the best things I’ve read this year. Next I’ll want to read Johnson’s The Great Negro Plot: An Urban Historical.
During a recent spate of recreational ricochet reading — funny how books that have been on your shelves for decades suddenly seem to demand you take them down for another look — I also renewed acquaintances with two Seventies-vintage science fiction authors: Samuel R. Delany, whose story collection Aye, And Gomorrah presents this often demanding writer in his most accessible guises, and Octavia Butler, whose celebrated novel Kindred uses SF devices to ring several intriguing, sometimes appalling changes on the nature of racism and the psychological (and physical) wounds it inflicts on everyone it touches.
And no list such as this would be complete without a pitch for friend, colleague and blogbud Charles H. Johnson, whose two poetry collections are more than worth your while. Unlike some of the writers mentioned here, Johnson has some excellent work posted on the Intertubes, so I’ll just let his words do the talking.