Thursday, January 12, 2012

Our Man in the Dark by Rashad Harrison - Book Review

When I read the description of OurMan in the Dark by Rashad Harrison I thought the word noir was merely the affectation of a publicist looking for a way to describe this dark novel set in the period between John F. Kennedy's assassination and Martin Luther King's. But sure enough, the book has a black and white cinematic quality resonating the films of Humphrey Bogart with a touch of Orson Welles in it. The narration is almost unrelievedly in black and white, with the only other color being a smear of bright red, either lipstick or blood. Noir also refers to a tone of cynical corruption dominating a story. By this light, Our Man in the Dark surely qualifies. The narrator, John Estem, lives on the edges of the colliding worlds of the civil rights movement. The FBI's obsession with proving MLK to be a communist tool, the celebrity world of Hollywood caught between politics, race, and crime, and the futility of using alcohol, tobacco, and sex to bridge the need for satisfaction dominate this book. It's in this dark, smoky, joyless space where Harrison seeks to locate and develop his tale.

The Mountaintop, a current play set in New York by Katori Hall starring Samuel L. Jackson as MLK covers some of the same exploratory ground as Our Man in the Dark. The question of whether King's greatness is diminished because of his humanity has been at issue since the FBI sought to destroy his reputation as a spiritual and social leader by showing him also to be a creature of the flesh. Harrison, too, creates a fictional world with King at the center to examine the interaction of the civil rights movement, the FBI's effort to discredit the movement, an Atlanta gangster, and the Klan. The narrator is the fictional Southern Christian Leadership Council accountant John Estem, lacking an “e” in his name and his character sufficient to allow him to rise above his own physical and emotional deficiencies. Estem is crippled by the brace he wears due to childhood polio. His dragging leg, cruel and demeaning father, and sense of his own lack of substance, perhaps modeled after Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, make him a character hard to like or even feel very sorry for as his life falls apart.

In the rather complex plot, Estem, feeling needy and inadequate, steals money from the SCLC and is able to hide the theft from everyone except his boss, Gant, who, for reasons of his own which contribute to the story, doesn't expose him. Meanwhile, Estem comes into contact with the gangster Count, because of his infatuation with Candice, a prostitute and mistress of Count's. Discovering his points of weakness, two FBI agents recruit Estem as an informant within the civil rights movement, seeking to use Martin Luther King's sexual exploits and supposed connections with communism to destroy the movement at the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. For people with sufficient memory, the picture bears a close resemblance to the period in the mid-sixties when King was emerging as the major leader in the civil rights movement. While no one in this novel is covered with glory, the story carries a strong sense of authenticity. The recurring image of Estem's polio deadened leg dragging him backwards is a central metaphor of the book. The steamy heat of Atlanta helps create a sweaty sexuality which also hovers over every incident, controlling the actions of the characters. While many recognizable historical characters appear in this story, it remains a fictional account focused on Estem's need to find and save himself within the tumult of this important period in American history.

On a more personal note: Both Bayard Rustin, whose homosexuality plays a minor, but important, part in Our Man in the Dark and Martin Luther King provided crucially important formative influences during my teen years. In 1955, between my eighth and ninth grade years at Westtown School, a Quaker school in suburban Philadelphia, I attended a Young Friends conference there. Bayard Rustin, who lived in nearby West Chester, was one of the resource people. Rustin had been an important influence on A. Philip Randolph of the railroad porters' union and had introduced the young Martin Luther King to the work of Ghandi and the possibilities of non-violence within the civil rights movement. He was also, it turns out, gay, which for many years created a stain on his reputation. My memory of him is as a gentle, humane, thought provoking voice for equality and understanding. On July 26, 1958 Martin Luther King gave an address called “Non Violence and Racial Justice” at the Friends General Conference held that summer in Cape May, New Jersey. The large auditorium was packed and hot. King held the audience spellbound and received a standing ovation at the end. He presented a physical and tonal presence affecting everyone lucky enough to have heard him that evening, including me. Both of these men influenced my growing awareness at important developmental points in my life. 

Rashad Harrison
First time novelist Rashad Harrison has written a deeply evocative and darkly true (Not Factual...truth can best be found in fiction) novel of the civil rights era. Our Man in the Dark captures a period in history many people consider to have provided the solution to our race problems, preferring to believe race is no longer a central metaphor in our understanding of what it means to be an American.  The book's a worthy read by a young writer who deserves watching.The book is published by Atria Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. It has a retail price of $25.00. It's available at major online outlets as well as your local independent book store. I received my copy of the book from the publisher through TLC Book Tours.