Negroes in Suburbia
by Keith Wheeler.
Simon and Schuster. 345 pp. $4.50.
by Christopher Davis.
Coward-McCann, Inc. 253 pp. $3.95.
Some problems admit of no real solutions. That is at bottom the feeling conveyed to me by these two novels which treat the subject of Negro integration (on the level of housing) into white communities. Insoluble human problems of the highest kind are the subject of tragedy; on a humbler level, they are in the province of pathos. Both Mr. Wheeler’s story and Mr. Davis’s are extremely pathetic, and optimistic readers are sure to be frustrated, provoked, and even alarmed by their portrayals of futility.
The initial situation in both books is about the same. A colored family has bought a house (or is trying to buy a house) in a white suburb. In Keith Wheeler’s book (the more hopeful of the two), the community is in Westchester and the homes cost somewhat more than $30,000 each. In Christopher Davis’s book (the more sensitive study), the community is a few hundred miles from Chicago and the homes are valued at somewhat less than $20,000.
I mention these cash figures first of all because both writers stress the fact that economics is perhaps the most important part of the situation they are depicting. In Northern suburbs, though a residue of racial prejudice against the Negro remains (mostly on the part of neurotic or hysterical women), the major source of resentment among nearly all whites—Gentile and Jew, immigrants and native-born—is the immediate threat posed to the property values of the neighborhood. One gathers that if some enormous public fund existed to stabilize property values, objections to the Negro as neighbor in the suburb might largely disintegrate; but this thought contributes to one’s depression instead of dispelling it.
In both novels, the Negro family is not representative but exceptional. In Wheeler’s book, it is the family of an extraordinarily talented commercial artist, and in Davis’s that of a classical scholar and university teacher. Davis’s professor is a gentle, retiring character; the militancy and aggressiveness in his family is concentrated in the women—his wife and sister—and in his twelve-year-old son. But Wheeler’s Negro protagonist is presented as a more difficult case: brashly assertive and self-confident to the point of arrogance. Here, it is his wife who has to work hard to slow him down. The allegorical expression of this fact (from its title, Peaceable Lane, to its smallest detail, the book is consistently allegorical) is that the commercial artist, Lamar Winter, likes to drive his Jaguar at a hundred miles an hour—a taste for speed that brings him to a bad end eventually.
Lamar Winter is painted, in fact, as a generally unattractive person. He is positively jagged in his individualism, and he is intolerant of all organized social activity, particularly on the part of what he calls the “do-gooders.” He is going to make it on his own as a most successful practitioner of private enterprise. His belligerence and perversity are essential to the complication of the fictional problem. The book is a quite clever and cerebral production. The characters of the allegory are flat, mechanical affairs, but the plot turns nimbly with what is sometimes surprising wit. The story is told mainly from the white point of view, and the character most cruelly hoisted on the horns of the American dilemma is Lamar Winter’s Anglo-Saxon business associate and friend, appropriately named Matthew Jones.
Christopher Davis’s story concentrates on the Negro point of view. The plotting is simpler and less cerebral than Wheeler’s, but the characters and feeling are more fully realized. The author’s attention focuses on the effect of conflict and rejection within a Negro boy, an exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, sickly boy who has to bear on his shoulders the weight of a world he never made and cannot endure. It is a world in which reason, wisdom, and justice have the illuminating power of a candle, and the passions and prejudices of people, both white and colored, have the power of a volcano, often quiet, sometimes erupting. It is all much too much for him, and like Ivan Karamazov, of whom he has never heard, he decides to give his “entrance ticket” back to God, of whom (at least in the traditional sense) he seems also never to have heard. In the last scene, we watch him throw himself off the roof, and this suicide seems to be Davis’s commentary on the hopelessness of the present impasse in race relations.
The conclusion of Keith Wheeler’s more popular study is only a shade less pessimistic. The automobile accident in which Lamar Winter kills himself to avoid hitting his own son fighting in the street with Matthew Jones’s boy, suggests plainly enough that the author sees little prospect for the amelioration of race tensions at the present time. By making Winter’s widow decide to stay on in Peaceable Lane and bring up her son there, Wheeler hints that it may be a different story in the next generation. But his present story contains small comfort.
One interesting aspect to me of both books is the emergence in them of liberals as quasi-villains. The publisher of Mr. Davis’s book tells us that “it won’t please the NAACP.” The liberal Charleses in his book are not outrightly villainous perhaps (to portray a villain, the author should have to believe in evil, which, as a philosophic naturalist, he cannot do), but they are cowardly, ridiculous, and more than a little stupid. At first they try to be good neighbors to the colored McKinley family and take its part against the rest of the neighborhood, but when their thirteen-year-old daughter drifts into a troubled emotional relationship with Scotty McKinley, the son, they fail completely in dealing with the situation. After some feeble efforts to live by principles that are infinitely more difficult to apply to a living situation than they have imagined, they decide that they simply “want out.” Ironically enough, they sell their house and move away just at the time that frankly hostile and unenlightened Neanderthal men like “Captain” Longman (whose wife, an unreconstructed Southerner, has circulated a petition asking the McKinley’s to leave Courtland Park quietly and voluntarily) have almost decided to ride out the storm and—in the interest of real estate values—not to sell their houses in a panic.
In Keith Wheeler’s book, Lamar Winter (trying to buy into a white residential section) has almost as much trouble with “organizations” that support him as with individuals who oppose him. He delivers himself of a tirade to his wife: “‘Let those do-gooding dynamiters get their hands on you and you ain’t a man any more; you’re an exhibit, a laboratory specimen for civil rights. Honey, maybe I do things a hard way, but I’ll be a nigger sonofabitch if I’m going to be put on the road in a Westchester side show of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”
The nearest approximation of a villain in Peaceable Lane is Barton, a Negro “blockbusting” lawyer and real-estate finagler, who explains in some detail how he manages to combine what he regards as a socially useful and progressive activity with highly profitable speculation. (It may seem farfetched to some readers, but I think there is a resemblance between the attitude implicit here toward the exploiter of laudable sentiments, the group “spokesman,” and the attitude one finds more subtly developed in Philip Roth’s story “Defender of the Faith.”) Mr. Wheeler has judiciously balanced his portrait of Francis Barton with a less memorable sketch of an obnoxious, white, “fighting liberal” radio commentator named Peter Yale. Yale, whose true name is as doubtful as that of Bronson (the jeweler who immediately sold out to a “blockbuster” as a way of revenging himself on his neighbors), is a combination of spinelessness, selfishness, and self-righteousness. His life gives the lie completely to the moral views he peddles to the public. Barton and Yale bear about the same relation to liberalism as Tartuffe and Elmer Gantry do to religion. Their base hypocrisy may not destroy the faith they profess, but the exposure contributes to undermining it.
These books confirm what the newspapers have already told us—that changes in social mores (except perhaps in such times of upheaval and catastrophe as war and revolution) necessarily take place with much more deliberation than speed. From the ordinary citizen’s short-term point of view, the process may seem completely disheartening. And it is moods of discouragement, not to say despair, that these novels reflect. Yet Mr. Wheeler’s story, at least, suggests the thought that the application of American pragmatism to social problems may have something in common with the British notion of muddling through. The rigorous logician is compelled to predict an explosion whenever an irresistible force meets with an immovable object; but the observer of human affairs is inclined to think that some outcome short of this worst is more probable—perhaps because in practice, as opposed to theory, no irresistible forces or immovable objects really exist. There is a ray of hope in Mr. Wheeler’s conviction that time is the great solvent of social problems, that patience and fortitude will prevail, and that in ways not yet foreseen, all will be well. The alternative to Mr. Wheeler’s faith is the cynical suggestion that social problems, like individual ones, are less often solved than forgotten.
Mr. Davis, on the other hand, is beyond cynicism. The mood which his book evokes is completely misanthropic. This whole country for him is filled with Yahoos, and he seems ready to take up residence among more cultivated Houyhnhnms. As if in confirmation of this hypothesis, the book-jacket of the ironically titled First Family informs us that the author has now expatriated himself, or at least absented himself, from the United States and has taken his wife and two daughters with him to Spain.