Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

This is the second Ishmael Reed novel I’ve read, and the second I’ve loved.  I was given Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by a friend who swore she couldn’t understand this or others of Reed’s books.  It’s true that Reed’s prose doesn’t follow conventional syntax at all times, but for whatever reason that makes it all the more appealing to me.  The narrative, it turns out, is as linear as one could want.

More of interest is the subject matter–at least, more of interest to me at the time of this writing.  This was Reed’s second novel, to be followed by Mumbo Jumbo, his most famous, on which I have written earlierAnother blogger, reviewing YBRBD, suggested that it was an easier read than Mumbo Jumbo, which may well be true.  The references may be less dense, or possibly more familiar to readers in the United States, as YBRBD is a send-up of sorts of Westerns, a cultural reference-point widely shared in the US, where the centrality of Vodun in Mumbo Jumbo is surely less familiar territory to the average US reader, even, and possibly particularly, to the literate public, so-called.

Really, I do a disservice to Reed in calling the book a send-up, even though coming from me this is the highest of compliments, as I tend to to find more value in the satirizing of something than in the thing satirized itself.  That said, Reed presents us with a Black central character, the Loop Garoo Kid (loup garou=werewolf), Vodun practitioner in the American West, terrorizing the forces of encroaching white capitalism, all the while in-and-out of league with the Pope.  Reed–and I don’t want to suggest that he is anything other than meticulous in his method–gives the feeling of throwing reference after reference onto the page to see which ones stick.  It’s exhilarating.

So, why it’s not a satire (while at the same time, it is): the West Reed describes is closer to the real thing than what one gets in Westerns.  It was (is) not just white cowboys and Indians, but a whole host of people, including, particularly, Black people.  Moreover, Reed very clearly, though briefly, clarifies the driving force behind the westward expansion of the United States as capitalism, not a spirit of adventure or some civilizing mission.  On this, he is demonstrably correct.

Reed recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times wisely pointing out that much white “progressive” critique of Obama mistakenly assumes that Obama has the same options as President as a white person would have, Harry Truman, for example.  Reed caught some predictable flak. Reed is right-on about Obama and white progressives, however, and I think part of the problem stems from the fact that white progressives very often–most often, I’d think–think that something has gone wrong with the United States, as opposed to the more correct idea that something has been wrong with the United States since it started, and before it as well.  Reed falls into the second camp.  And why?  Because the United States was founded as capitalism unfettered, with human capital, chattel slavery, as its most fundamental basis.  The entire cultural, intellectual, political, legal, and economic system of the country was founded with that in mind, and still reflects it.

Reed, and this is possibly even more visible in Mumbo Jumbo, critiques the whole of “Western Civilization.”  That’s what pisses white people off.  The Loop Garoo Kid brings African religious practice to North America.  This reflects historical fact.  Reed critiques Western Civ., but, far from a nihilistic perspective, with clear alternatives in mind.  One can live, in North America today, and not be “Western.”  It takes discipline (a discipline which, in my case, is still a work in progress) but it can be done.

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