Black & White
Former Austinite Lewis Shiner returns with a near-perfect novel of family and race in North Carolina
Reviewed by Rick Klaw, Fri., July 4, 2008
Black & Whiteby Lewis Shiner
Subterranean Press, 376 pp., $25
With his groundbreaking, acclaimed works Deserted Cities of the Heart (1988), Slam (1990), and the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Glimpses (1993), Lewis Shiner exploded from the late-1980s Austin literary scene. As happens far too often with celebrated wordsmiths, he disappeared into the literary ocean. Except for the occasional short work and his 1999 novel, Say Goodbye, Shiner has toiled in relative obscurity.
In his triumphant return to novel-length fiction, Shiner – now residing in North Carolina – emerges from his literary cocoon to craft Black & White, a powerful exploration of institutional racism and family identity. Centering his tale on the disturbingly real history of the doomed Durham, N.C., African-American community Hayti, Shiner ushers his protagonist, comic-book artist Michael Cooper, into the maelstrom of his father's past, full of terrible secrets, voodoo, and even murder. As the compelling narrative unfolds, Cooper – accompanying his mother and father, Ruth and Robert, from Dallas to his birthplace of Durham – uncovers unsettling truths about his own identity. He realizes that the hate groups that helped to destroy Hayti back in the 1960s were not only intertwined within his complex family history but still exist.
The narrative begins slowly – a common Shiner trait – but eventually snowballs into an avalanche of frenetic action set in a hauntingly realistic past and present. In one of the book's many insightful moments, Robert, a white man surrounded mostly by African-Americans, attends a 1964 live jazz performance at Hayti's Wonderland Theatre. The music flows through him, and Robert experiences an epiphany – the secrets of the cosmos revealed, a greater understanding of himself and his place in the universe. As he cleverly does throughout, Shiner uses the interactions with music to illustrate the characters, both physically and emotionally.
On the surface, Black & White demonstrates the struggles of historical and contemporary racism, but at its core, the story revolves around a son coming to terms with the sins of his father. The always-talented Shiner has produced some of his finest work to date here. Beyond a brief, discursive foray into Ruth's story, he has created a near-perfect novel – steeped in important political and societal issues, neatly wrapped in the trimmings of a mystery story. With Black & White, Lewis Shiner ascends to a literary realm previously reserved for the likes of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.