Just Above My Head

This is Baldwin’s final novel, and also his longest, by far.  It is a multi-generational saga, the most crucial stage of which unfolds during the 1950’s and 60’s.  Its narrator Hall Montana reports at the outset he has just lost his brother Arthur, and it sends him into a depression.  Baldwin uses the processing of Arthur’s death as a frame-narrative, dipping back and forth as the need arises.

Its two most central characters beyond Hall and Arthur are Julia and Jimmy Miller, themselves siblings and neighbors to the Montana’s (the Halls and Millers function a lot like the two families in IF Beale Street Could Talk).  Early on, Hall had been involved with Julia (though in the present he is married to Ruth, a much more minor character).  In parallel, Jimmy had been involved with Arthur.  The relationship between Jimmy and Arthur is, I’m pretty sure, the first and only time Baldwin wrote about a same-sex relationship between two black characters.  Of course since one of the characters is named Jimmy, and since Baldwin is cursed to be labelled a “semi-autobiographical novelist” (who is not? – But we say this about some people more than others, and Baldwin seems always so named), we start to wonder about parallels between Baldwin’s life and Jimmy’s.

Though multi-generational, this book is impressionistic, which is an odd duality.  It’s something I experienced also in Virginia Woolf’s The Years.  Neither work is remembered as its author’s greatest, I think because it is hard to be impressionistic while spanning decades.  That said, some of the sequences leave beautiful impressions.  Arthur’s tryst with a white Parisian man, in its narrations of Paris, its social intensity and its romantic scenery, for example, would merit being excerpted and published on their own (for all I know they have).  The sequences where Arthur and his band (he is a gospel singer) travel through the south, performing to churches in dangerous circumstances, fearing bombing and menacing white mobs who do not even bother to hide) were chilling and intimate.

In the end, I enjoyed this book, though I did not come away with a lot to say about it.  One of the most understated aspects of the narration is the transformation of Julia from child-preacher to Afrocentric activist.  This partially stands to designate changing times, from the 50’s to the 70’s, but it also gives us a glimpse, again, at how Baldwin himself had evolved.  It still never quite answers the puzzle of the nature of Baldwin’s theology – I’ve heard him called an atheist but that doesn’t ever quite capture the feeling I emerge with from every one of these books.

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