Friday, December 22, 2017

Pulitzer Project: Elbow Room

I'm starting to think I might live long enough to read all the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction after all. James Alan McPherson's Elbow Room won in 1978 so at this point there are less than 40 left for me to get to. Even allowing for the fact that a new one gets added to the list almost every year, if I read at least 5 per year I might manage to make it through them all before I take a dirt nap. Maybe.

Of course, I could whip through the list fairly fast if I didn't insist on using the public library to get them. I've whined before about how limited the collection is at the L'Anse Public Library -- if Danielle Steele or Janet Evanovich had won multiple Pulitzers I'd have no problem -- and the fact Interlibrary Loan is available only 8 months out of the year. I'd get the books read a lot faster if I was willing to actually buy them. (I miss DeKalb County every time I think about Interlibrary Loan. The DeKalb County library system was in an exchange with institutions like Emory University as well as other public libraries in the state. You name it and they could get it, and usually within 48 hours.)

Back to the subject at hand:  Elbow Room. Winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Elbow Room was the first work by an African-American author to win a Pulitzer, which surprised me. I have a hard time believing they passed over authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, but they did. In any case, Elbow Room was not James Alan McPherson's first collection of short stories, which had appeared in 1969. McPherson established a reputation for quality short fiction early in his writing career.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943, by the time McPherson was in his early 30s he was a contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly magazine and had been published in  numerous other top tier periodicals such as Harper's. He began writing short fiction while studying law at Harvard University. Success in literature came quickly enough that he never felt the need to practice law, although according to Wikipedia he did incorporate his legal knowledge into his fiction.

I didn't recognize McPherson's name when it came up on the list, but once I started reading the book several of the stories felt familiar. I probably read them when they first appeared in print, but when it comes to short fiction I'm terrible at remembering authors' names. If I had to sum up McPherson's work, I'd say he focused on intersections: the intersections between blacks and whites, working class blacks and middle class, wannabe gangsters and the real thing, folks who had left the South and their rural roots behind and the relatives and friends who still had, figuratively speaking, blisters from chopping cotton.

In the title story, "Elbow Room," an observation of an interracial marriage: a white man from Kansas meets a black woman from Tennessee while both are living in San Francisco. The narrator, who is black, admires both as individuals but thinks the marriage is a mistake. He doesn't believe the white man is strong enough to deal with the pervasive discrimination they'll face as a couple, he's sure the man's family will never accept the wife. He doesn't worry as much about the wife's family, which struck me as a bit odd. I've known a few black families that freaked out more over their kids dating someone white or Asian or Hispanic than the non-black families did about dating across racial lines, but maybe from the author's perspective the narrator's qualms and pessimistic predictions served as a surrogate for what the woman's family might be thinking. 

In another story, the narrator, a man who has achieved middle class status, reminisces about the last time he saw his lower class borderline gangster cousin, a man who works as a repo man for a car dealer. The narrator has become a black Clark Griswold, a person who now has a respectable job, a nice home, and in-laws who are pretty far removed from the deep South. The repo man is the narrator's equivalent of Clark's cousin Randy. When he shows up, you never know what's going to happen. Even if you dress him up in nice clothes and try to get him to act "respectable" just long enough to get through one evening with the in-laws, his disdain for being polite and his propensity for over-indulging in alcohol and violence will come shining through. We all have a cousin Randy, the relative who you hope won't use bad language in front of the kids or try to borrow money you don't have, so the story definitely resonates with the reader. The narrator is conflicted. He's appalled and dismayed by his cousin's behavior, but he's also awed. He keeps mentioning that rumor has it his cousin is dead, but you can tell he's trying to convince himself it's not true. It's a tricky balancing act for an author to pull off but McPherson does it smoothly.

Following the critical success of Elbow Room, McPherson moved away from writing short fiction. He went into academia, wrote several works of nonfiction, and was among the first group of people to receive a MacArthur award (the so-called "genius fellowship). He became known for his reticence when it came to talking about himself or his work (one article describes him as "he made Salinger look talkative"), but did write a memoir a few years before his death in 2016.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes. One or two of the stories struck me as a tad clunky, but overall the book is very readable. On the sliding scale from horrible to outstanding, Elbow Room lands close to the high end. It's not quite in the top ten percent, but it comes close.

Next up on the list? More short stories: John Cheever's The Stories of John Cheever. I am not feeling optimistic. I used to own the Cheever book. I got it in the 1980s from the Quality Paperback Book Club. It gathered dust for over 20 years until I decided I was never going to read it. It wound up donated to the Friends of the Omaha Library ten years ago. Now I get to do an interlibrary loan request and try again. Wish me luck.

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