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Sad, Serendipitous: Book Review

The Third Life of Grange Copeland.’ by Alice Walker, 1970

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker’ Edited By Valerie Boyd, 2022

The Candy House’ By Jennifer Egan, 2022

* * *

Many decades ago, sometime around its initial publication, I read Alice Walker’s first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland.”

I probably bought it at the now legendary “Eighth Street Bookshop” in Greenwich Village, around the corner from my dark, dingy walk-up apartment on West 9th Street. I remember reading it while perched on an uncomfortable wooden stool. The store encouraged such participation. You weren’t meant to be comfortable while grazing. You were just meant to be doing what you were doing: reading.

Something about “Grange Copeland’s” opening pages gripped me.

It was set in a world I knew nothing about: rural Georgia. It was set the vast rural south, once inhabited by human property called “slaves.” Millions of people still lived there, no longer as human property, but in the same dismal conditions their ancestors had endured.

But what Walker was writing about immediately spoke to me. Oppression and the power to enforce it were familiar to Jews, who knew what such circumstances meant. Persecution, capture, torture, and death. Alice Walker and her millions of ethnic contemporaries were even less equipped than we Jews to “get over it,” because their visibility triggered resentment and old attitudes of brutality and repression – where surviving Jews were no longer the overt targets for discrimination. But for Blacks discrimination and state brutality had been codified during the failed “reconstruction” of their region. Page after page of “Grange Copeland” chronicles the result.

I was in my early twenties, having escaped my native Brooklyn via public education and an unlikely (and uncomfortable) sequencing to a foreign territory, Yale University. Alice had escaped, having been born into the milieu where hopeless submission was a norm. 

Many years later, as I read her selected journals, I see how much, despite our widely different circumstances, we had one thing in common when young. We were addicted to reading. 

For me, “Grange Copeland” became a milepost marker. Much earlier markers had included “Treasure Island,” a birthday present from an uncle (I was nine or ten years old). And other books, some way over my head, like “From Lenin to Malenkov,” which a stern social studies teacher, admiring my precocity, gave me when I graduated from eighth grade. And “Les Miserables” (in French!) which another teacher provided from discarded books. Like “The Stork Didn’t Bring You” which my father pushed on me when he sensed my intense curiosity about sex. (I pretended to read it, though I was instead engrossed in “Down and Out in Paris and London,” which I found on the street.)

In my small room in our very modest Brooklyn apartment, we had only one set of books: “Nelson’s Encyclopedia.” It came into our world because, while in elementary school ,I had asked whether we could “get a Britannica.” I was supposed to be in class, but instead inhabited in the school library. Sometimes I looked up a topic being discussed in class (“Larry would you please go to the library and see what you can find in the Britannica about (wolves, stars, flags, figs) and come back and tell us?” We had the same “home room” teacher all day, and bells rang only for lunch, recess, and “duck and cover” fire drills, meant to teach us that we could hide from “enemy” bombs. It didn’t matter if I came back to my home room in five minutes or an hour.

So often I stayed, grazing tiny encyclopedia type, from figs to flags. Flags were a favorite, one of the few subjects with colored pictures. I helped teachers give each kid crayons to make their own little Hollands, Australias, Chinas, and Indias to wave as we marched around the auditorium on “Flag Day.” (There were no black kids in our school, just a few Chinese.)

All of this came back to me as I read in “Grange Copeland.” about people living in the same historical period in the same country but in a different universe. In Walker’s book, Black kids who got to learn anything from books had only the bible as text to learn from. And many were too poor or too isolated to have even a church or a bible, in their lives. 

What they had instead was talk. “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” is stuffed with people talking to each other. Mostly not nicely. .Frustrated, exhausted, intoxicated, selfish, and violent, they have hostile exchanges that often led to physical abuse. The men often screaming drunk. The women risking being honest only with other women, getting through days of heavy labor done by hand: cooking, cleaning , and caring for large broods of kids, often with little or no food or clothes to give them, 

It approaches, even goes beyond, caricature and parody. As many critics have pointed out, books like “Grange Copeland” show very horrific images. For Blacks of Walker’s generation, it was an image they already knew of, even if they hadn’t directly experienced it.

The drumbeat of ghastly people trapped in their circumstances is why “Grange Copeland” is not a great novel. But it is a great book. A rhythm is never established beyond men behaving impossibly harmfully, and, later on, a much more nuanced, true to life description of how people go back and forth between their worst and their best behaviors, with many stops in between. Walker was learning how to write her material as she wrote it.

By the time Walker began to write and assemble “Grange Copeland” she had been through educational establishments, dominated by white teachers, white magazine editors, and white publishing houses, in Atlanta and New York. She knew what she was up against, and how whatever she managed to get published would be received by the white establishment. She had “dated,” lived with, and married a white man, and given birth to their child. 

As omnivorous and perspicacious writer Greil Marcus later observed that whites were “going to be put off, alienated by what they found in “Grange Copeland”…a white American may feel that he or she is somehow violating the tale simply by responding to it. For whites to ‘say this is part of my legacy, my patrimony too…is to go farther than any white can decently go.”

This tension in literature continues to this day. In Jennifer Egan’s widely awaited and now widely praised recent fiction “The Candy House,” a character-driven scenario is set up around eccentric geniuses who figure out how to synthesize all knowledge and all personal experience into “cubes.” The main inventor, and power controller (money, jobs, sexual dalliances) of these cubes is a black man. The cubes can be unpacked with the proper electronic keys. Those who most wish to unpack them are commercial interests who then decide where to put a, let’s say, Starbucks and what to sell there. And also politicians, who can figure out what best appeals to voters fear and greed.

But “The Candy House” falls apart, just as “Grange Copeland” falls apart, when Egan leaves the characters in confusion and stops creating scenarios for their actions. In other words, stops telling a story and is taken over instead by her random musings on any and everything, in the story Alice Walker is clearly learning how to write as “Grange Copeland” unfolds. Although she could have, and now in the “Journals” does, wander around like Egan. 

Walker knows how to draw this, and other, lines. Of her 33 previous books, fourteen have been fiction, ten are poetry, and eleven are nonfiction.

One can see in “Grange Copeland,” her first published novel, the tension she’s always felt. Do I keep the story flowing by storytelling? When do the words I write not have to make sequential sense? In writing about me and what I’ve experienced and learned, who am I and why do I think this way? Or about who my characters are, what they’ve experienced, and why they think as they do?

It’s important to remember while reading Walker that she is the age she is (77) and has lived through the historical periods, and events of her decades. “Grange Copeland” is very much an early work, as we can see Walker struggling to set it, in time, and to get Grange (the patriarch) and Ruth (the Alice-like heroine) to be more than their impulses and actions. 

Knowing what we do about the last hundred years or so, living through them as Grange and Ruthie and others in the novel do, is a challenge for a writer. Walker became interested in, and involved in, the Civil Rights movement at a very young age. But in “Grange Copeland” the characters are only glancingly affected by a time that included the World War 1 era, the Twenties, the Great Depression, FDR and World War 2, nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the JFK and RFK and MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, assassinations, the Farmworkers, the Clinton and Bush messes, Nelson Mandela, Mumia Abu-Jamal LGBT. There are only rare glancing mentions of these and their implications in “Grange Copeland.”

Although maybe if, as Egan begins to dramatize in “The Candy House,” there soon will need to be no fact-based fiction at all. People will be able to affix devices to their heads, get comfortable, with or without narcotic assistance, dial up what they’ll dial up, and bliss (or suffer) out. 

Recently, a tech journalist, Ferris Jabr credits LinkedIn, one of the new headspace tinkers, with having invented a device with which “people will communicate with each other, get work done and even create beautiful artwork, directly with their minds.” 

Another mindfucker adept, Max Hodak, according to Jabr, “dreams of using neural implants to make the ‘human sensorium’ directly programmable. A lucid waking dream, that appears every time someone closes their eyes.” (“Brain Wave,” NY Times Magazine, 5/15/2022)

No need to poke around in bookstores (there won’t be any). Just twist your dial – or have someone twist it for you – or think about twisting it, and all the barrier reefs, mountain ranges, sex experiences, Beethoven sonatas and cooking classes are yours!

And what if the new medium of delivery mentally warps the substance of the “consumer?” What if that “consumer” tailors his or her input to areas that justify their inhuman impulses, and tunes out everything else?

Such a “consumer “ seems to have been Salvador Ramos, who nursed grievances against the world, much as Walker portrays Grange Copeland having developed in a very different setting. 

One out of every five U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year. Less than half of adults with mental conditions receive care. Eleven years is the average time between the onset of symptoms and getting treatment. (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2022)

Grange Copeland’s friends didn’t help him try to work through his hatreds for white people. So he took it out on his fellow Blacks, and especially on physically weaker Black Women. Who themselves victimized other vulnerable Black women.

One of Ramos’ few friends, who helped him through bullying and mockery during his truancy-riddled school years, said after Ramos killed twenty-two people in Uvalde, Texas, 19 of them little kids, 

“When I heard about it I couldn’t even think, I couldn’t even talk to anyone. I just walked out of class, really upset, you know, bawling my eyes out ,because I never expected him to hurt people.

“I think he needed mental help. And more closure with his family. And love.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, his sorrowful voice dripping with evasions, was one of a chorus of state officials saying after the slaughter that mental health was the issue. Heads of his fellow elected officials nodded on the dais in agreement. 

But those who work on mental health in Texas quickly pointed out that Abbott and his veto-proof majorities in the Texas legislature and his executive appointees all worked as hard as they could to make sure that mental health proposals were underfunded and unimplemented. Instead, “more research was needed” to find out what to do.

As Abbott’s press presentation droned on, it came the turn of his Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, to chime in.

While Abbott focused on mental illness instead of guns, Patrick said there will be “plenty of time to discuss and analyze what happened this is not the time for politics. Then he turned to religion.

“In these other shootings -- Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Odessa, Santa Fe -- it’s God that brings a community together. It’s God that heals a community,” Patrick said. “If we don’t turn back as a nation to understanding what we were founded upon and what we were taught by our parents and what we believe in, then these situations will only get worse.”

Can Alice Walker still laugh at times like these?

I know I did, as I was finishing my latest reading of “Grange Copeland” in the middle of the night, as Uvalde unfolded, and Abbott et al began to speak. 

“God”? The “god” for whom it’s OK for little kids to die? For their families to endure the all too brief memories of their lives? For dedicated, loving teachers to be slaughtered? For a police officer to lose his life trying to intervene?

God?

There are two final points that Walker’s latest book brought up for me.

First, I had hoped that after we finally met, in the early 2000s, we would remain in touch, personally or professionally or both. I knew she listened to KPFA, where I’d worked for years. But I knew that being friends was going to be hard, given her dedication to various spiritual practices, to some form of the divine. Which I think is gibberish. And I knew about her comfort in “womanist” approaches, which seemed to me an exclusivity I could not share.

And we did intersect, thanks to my only child, an energetic, funny, musical, verbose bundle of beauty and energy. Alice gave me a key to her house in the Berkeley hills so I could drop off and pick up books. She invited us to house sit her wonderful Mendocino house and Buddhist grounds.. She read to Lila. Listened to her play the piano.. But she and her close associates made it clear to me that further contact would have to be initiated by her. That she was already inundated by people, many of them well-meaning, and I should try only sparingly, if at all, to be close. And so I did, or didn’t. (For a sample of us together, try searching the Pacifica Program Archive.)

I rarely saw her again. Later I was told that she’d gotten wind of the endless nature of the turmoil at Pacifica, in whose support I had helped enlist her and her good name. I was told that she didn’t want to be involved in any more politically and personally charged scenarios no matter how much she might agree with one side or another.)

The second has to do with the equivalency in reading “Grange Copeland,” “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” and the senseless lies from Texas. Alice Walker has tried all her life, is still trying at age 77, to deal with the latter while producing, polishing, and presenting the former. How hard it’s been drips from every one of the “The Journals of Alice Walker’s” 556 pages. 

Maybe you can find a quiet corner to read a few pages. Maybe you’ll read a lot more. You’ll see how hard it’s been for her to treasure and develop her beautiful self. How difficult it’s been at times to conquer her demons.

Conquer them she has, although admittedly always temporarily.

The takeaway: so can we!

(Larry Bensky can be reached at LBensky@igc.org.)

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