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ONE OF THE major faults of American belles-lettres has been the failure of most fiction-writers to confront realistically the problem of black and white in America. Too often both blacks and whites have pandered to the stercotypes of the public (and to the dollar sign). or else have written as it a sense of grievance and the element of anger intrinsically produce good fiction. Fortunately. John A. Williams is one American novelist who has avoided these dead-ends.
The 44 year old author is latest novel, Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, is not quite on par with his previous effort. The Man Who Cried I Am. published in 1967: but then, that novel was a literary masterpiece. Sons of Darkness is about the American racial dilemma and the catastrophic events it produces in 1973. But more than that. Sons of Darkness is about the rights human beings have and the wrongs which they suffer. Its fundamental message is that when a society, no matter what its political structure or philosophy, so oppresses a people as to choke off their life-force, those people have no choice but to resort to violence. The author contends that given the unwillingness of America to let black men be men blacks have no alternative to using violence-restricted violence, hopefully, with a definite purpose: but if that fails then large-scale guerilla warfare, and the consequences be damned.
John A Williams is a man who is black and who writes from a black perspective. His perspective is also that of an oppressed individual who knows what oppression can do to its victims regardless of their nationality, religion, or race.
The plot of Sons of Darkness is as painfully simple-and as compley-as the historical relationship between whites and blacks in America. The novel is set in New York City in the year 1973. Eugene Browning number two man in the Institute for Racial Justice (IRJ) an Urban League-type organization, has reached the conclusion that his country really does not want him. His country is and always has been trying to kill him and his kind off.
This conclusion is the result of some forty-odd year of being black in a white society: but its immediate cause is the killing of an unarmed black teenager by an Irish-American policeman. The policeman, cited on two separate occasions for bravery, says the youth attacked him with a penknife. He pumped five bullets into the teenager's chest. No knife is ever found. Browning (and black America) recognizes the killing for what it is: cold-blooded murder. His faith in the country completely shattered, he arranges through the Mafia a contract for the policeman's death.
Browning believes this process of selective assassination will produce two results. It will alert black America that the word now is to be cool and kill an eve for an eye thus letting white America know that it can no longer wantonly murder blacks without retribution. He hopes that it will also head off massive unorganized ghetto revolts in which only blacks suffer. But Browning's hopes crumple like a dynamited bridge, as the policeman's death touches off an uncontrollable swirl of events.
WILLIAMS' hard. compact style wrings every ounce of meaning from his words. His ability to flesh out characters and scenes is a pleasure to observe: he has an exciting way of making his characters come alive-not jump but flow off the pages seep into the reader's mind so that, at a certain point in the novel, the character suddenly emerges, fully-fleshed and fully-human. Quickly and easily Williams skerches the relationship between his central characters: Browning, the Don. a now-inactive Mafia kingpin, and Itzhak Hod, the triggerman.
The Don. born in Sicily, fled his home to escape killing for the Organization. He and his older brother made their way to America in the early twenties seeking a new start. They soon learned that America's promise of equality and justice was as barren as the soil from which they fled. It was only when he became powerful-it did not matter how, the Don discovered-that he was respected and feared by the Wasps and the Irish, the country's dominant groups.
Hod, a massive hulk of a man, is a Russian Jew whose family fled to the Warsaw ghetto, then to Palestine to escape both the pogroms of the goyim and the onslaught of the Nazis. But in Palestine there were the Arabs to contend with. In order to survive, the Jews had to become killers, and Itzhak Hod became one of the best they had. After the war Hod joined the hunt for escaped Nazi war criminals, and he became very good at that too.
Browning, the black American, is moderate in his political philosophy, and middle class in orientation. After a period of teaching in a small white college. Browning joins the IRJ instead of a more militant civil rights group, hoping that racial justice can be secured through the political channels. But disillusioned and consumed with rage after the youth's killing, Browning realizes that the political channels are ultimately only for those who hold power, and that an oppressed people can rid themselves of their oppression only through violence.
It is significant that Browning, a moderate, precipitates the racial holocust. Part of what Williams is saving is that a brute law and order philosophy will not quiet the ghettos because blacks aren't scared anymore. Or rather, they are so scared that they are desperate and therefore have nothing to lose but their lives.
The bond between the three men is now complete. Each has suffered discrimination because of what he is; each has been forced to use violence to survive in a society that continually threatened his life. Of course the relationship between the black and the Jew is more easily established and identifiable. After all, what is the difference between the pogroms of pre-World War H Europe and the race riots of the United States? What is the difference between the discrimination practiced against the Jews in pre-war Europe and that practiced against blacks in America in 1973? The difference is only one of subtlety.
In the hands of another writer the plot of Sons of Darkness could have easily have fallen prey to sensationalism. But Williams always keeps his per-spective. Although some of the characters are not fully developed. we are always aware of their humanity: Hod a killer yet a gentle man of principle; the Don. who takes a special interest in Browning in part because of a long-ago romance; Val. Browning's wife. who wears her hair au naturel. but who, like Browning. is firmly in the middle class: even Carrigan, the cop. who, furstrated with his job and marriage takes out his frustrations on a defenseless black youth. As in his previous work, Williams has shown himself to be a masterful writer.
Yet for all its strengths, the novel also has its faults. Its ending, for instance. leaves one vaguely disappointed. Everything ends too well for the central characters. Browning, the Don. and Hod all emerge unscathed by the events of the book-as if. after The Man Who Cried I Am, Williams wanted to write a book that would end happily, or at least, not tragically. At the novel's end, the domestic scene is still exploding and another perhaps final international war (the United States versus China) is imminent: but the central characters have been removed from the scene of action to one of relative tranquility. This decreases the story's overall intensity.
But of course this is only one reviewer's judgment. To those who have read The Man Who Cried I Am. the catastrophic developments of Sons of Darkness does not, cannot have the same thunderous shock effect. As a friend who has read both books said. "The world going up in smoke blows your mind the first time; the second time it doesn't quite come off."
Perhaps the denouement of the novel is the only way it could end. After the cop's assassination, all three main characters gradually slip off center stage to return to the orbit of their private lives as events move forward at their own dizzying momentum. At the end of the novel, Browning is just what he was before: a middle class black college professor, still essentially moderate but a little wiser.
The novel is also marred to a certain extent by shallow character development. Williams simply does not reach into and bring out his minor characters as he did in The Man Who Cried I Am. For all their humanity they seem incomplete; in some instances they speak and act like puppets.
But overall these are minor faults. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light is a novel to be read. It is only a few notches below The Man Who Cried I Am, and that still makes for gripping reading. The frontispiece of the book claims that Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light is a novel of some probability. Reading the novel will not lessen the chances of that probability becoming fact, but at least the reader will be prepared for it.
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