AT 37, ED BULLINS has written more than 30 plays, served as Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers, won an Obie award, and spent a lot of time hustling in the street. He's also just written his first novel, The Reluctant Rapist, an imaginatively structured but sadly shallow portrait of ghetto life.
Steve Benson, the protagonist in the brilliant The Duplex, once again serves as the focus of Bullins's work and as he skillfully juggles the novel's first and third person voices, Bullins leaves little doubt that he is Steve and that The Reluctant Rapist is his only slightly fictionalized autobiography. A picaresque tale of horror and beauty, failure and success, the novel begins with a street scene in Watts and in a series of flashbacks recalls Steve's--Bullins's life journey, a peregrination motivated by "the memory of the past, of his wasted years from where he came, from his previous trips searching for that something he sensed but hadn't found."
Steve's early years are spent in the streets of Philadelphia's black ghetto that like Bullins's plays are populated by hookers and hustlers, preachers and poor, the hopeful and the hopeless. With a mother whose civil service job provides just enough money to send him across town to school and out of the city during the summer, Steve must struggle to gain acceptance in the ghetto, an acceptance that comes only after a vicious blood-letting fight with a neighborhood gang leader. Success in the street leads to success in the bedroom as he is initiated into sex by a local whore as laurels for his victory.
Unfortunately, the emotionless rite has a permanently damaging effect on Steve's (and Bullins's) attitude towards women. Women are seen as sexual objects and survival of the male ego becomes dependent on crushing the female's. "You sonna bitch," Velma, the lonely housewife Steve seduces and mistreats in The Duplex, curses. "You're a sonna bitch," the first black woman he rapes in The Reluctant Rapist cries out as he defiles her. But instead of being offended by the epithets, he wears them boldly as though they were testimonials to his manliness. For Bullins the only law that operates between man and woman is the law of the jungle as he, the ferocious lion, preys upon what he characterizes as lamb-like women. "What unsettles me most about women," he confesses, "is when they are aggressive." Unlike Eldridge Cleaver, Bullins is unable to raise rape to the status of a socio-political act, for Bullins sees himself as nothing but the legendary black cocksman. "I want what I want and that's the name of the game. And when the game deals with female meat, I'm out to score, baby."
FOLLOWING HIS SEXUAL initiation, Steves passes his early teenage years in a street gang, his later teens in the Navy and his early twenties in a flirtation with the American dream. Going heavily into debt to buy several slum properties, he becomes a slum lord par excellance, carries a brief case, subscribes to The Wall Street Journal, and even runs a whore house on the side. But when the violence and degradation becomes overwhelming, he locks the door to the whore house, leaves everything behind, and heads for the ultimate destination of America's nomadic society: California.
In California he is befriended by a middle-class preacher who turns out to be a homosexual, Bullins's standard characterization of bourgeois male sexuality. After beating up the preacher, Steve moves to Watts and falls in with a Bohemian group of black students who share his romantic view of ghetto life as the novel comes full circle to the opening scene.
As a play The Reluctant Rapist would hold up very well. Bullins's sparse and direct prose reads more like stage directions in setting the scenes for his characters to deliver their earthy and vivid verbal banterings that make up the bulk of the work. But as a novel The Reluctant Rapist fails; it's characterizations shabby and incomplete, its treatment of the complexities of ghetto life simplistic.
Bullins wrote The Reluctant Rapist over the past ten years in between working on the most extraordinary project any American playwright has ever undertaken, a series of 20 full-length plays on the black experience in America that Bullins calls his "Twentieth Century Cycle." Comparing the five plays in the cycle already completed (In the Wine Time, In New England Winter, The Duplex, The Fabulous Miss Marie, and Home Boy) with The Reluctant Rapist it becomes painfully clear that there is no transitive law of genius between playwrights and novelists.
(This review first appeared in the Boston Phoenix.)
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