Review of Native Son by Richard Wright

First read: 7/99
Reviewed on: 7/12/99
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

I was looking forward to reading this book, because I'd previously read and enjoyed Black Boy by the same author, and found it a good read. I was expecting Native Son to be a similar type of story, perhaps taking place in a different location, but still an episodic type of novel. I was wrong.

I had a good reason to be surprised. When I was in 8th grade, Mr. Piersen had us read A Separate Peace and A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks, which had the same type of structure as Black Boy. So my brain had a category in it: "Books about what it is like to grow up Black in the United States." I had heard about Native Son in the context of books that teachers assign white students so they can learn about "The Black Experience," so I naturally assumed it was in that category. As I said, I was wrong.

Let's leave the politics and didactism aside for the moment. This was a kick-ass novel. I knew nothing about it when I started, and the plot turns and twists surprised me the whole time. (Although in retrospect, the story seemed like it unfolded the only way that it could have. I consider that one mark of a good story.) I probably am the last person in history who has read Native Son without having any of it spoiled previously; it worked well that way. The opening part seemed like we were going to hear about a gang of delinquents getting in trouble with a white society. The characters of Jan and Mary took me by surprise, as did the murder. I didn't think I would be surprised by the depictions of Racist Society, but I was. After I read the book, I read the preface, and Wright said that the newspaper articles quoted in the book were taken from articles published about the Robert Nixon case in Chicago. I can't believe stuff like that ever appeared in print. I can't imagine what it would be like to be Black and have to read that crap.

Wright also suprised me in his depictions of white liberals. This obviously hit closest to home, given that I am both. From the preface, where he was talking about his work in a Boy's Club: "Here I felt for the first time that the rich folk who were paying my wages did not really give a good goddamn about Bigger, that their kindness was prompted at bottom by a selfish motive. They were paying me to distract Bigger with ping-pong, checkers, swimming, marbles, and baseball in order that he might not roam the streets and harm the valuable white property which adjoined the Black Belt." Today, still, it seems that if Black crime did not affect White America, we wouldn't care about it at all.

Chicago is an unique city in its segregation. I'd long told Laurel how parts of downtown were extremely clean and crime-free, and parts were nightmares, and how it came from historic segregation. She believed me, I think, but it was really brought home when we got lost when we were driving around. We took one wrong turn and there we were, in Cabrini Green. Even though I'd been there before, the suddenness of the transition really threw me, and this time I was old enough to realize how the streets were designed so that once you are in the poor neighborhoods, it is very hard to get out.

One more interesting thing from the preface - Wright mentioned a previous book of his, Uncle Tom's Children, that white people read and cried over. He didn't like that. He didn't want to have a character that white people could relate to and feel sorry for. He deliberately wrote Bigger to be alien and other. He didn't want white people to read this book, cry, and then feel some sort of catharsis. He wanted them to be uncomfortable at the end. I was, because I wound up siding against him. If I were on the Jury, I would have voted to give him the death penalty. And I feel lousy for feeling that way.

So, why didn't I give this novel three s? I almost did. But I'm trying to rate these novels as "novels," not textbooks. There were some parts of it that were pedantic enough to take me out of the story. The lawyer's speech at the end, for example, and conversations like the one between Bigger and Gus at the beginning. So let's say that this book wasn't just a good read, it was a damned good read, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good novel. And if you are interested in more than just a good story, but want to expand and grow, then add another to my rating and do what you must.

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