The demon of storytelling

No American writer dribbles a sentence quite like John Edgar Wideman does. Watching him thread language between his legs and around his back is a bit like watching a Harlem Globetrotter vamp. See it a few times and you can forget how much skill is involved.

There is one opponent Wideman cannot entirely shake with this dance, though, and that is life itself. Over the past two decades, Wideman has given us three separate memoirs about events that have indelibly marked him: the life imprisonment of his younger brother Robby (in Brothers and Keepers) and the life imprisonment of his son, Jacob (in Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society). A nephew was murdered, also (Wideman’s novel Two Cities: A Love Story is dedicated to him).

And so, although he graduated from an Ivy League school, became a Rhodes scholar, taught at fine universities and became the only American writer to twice win the PEN/Faulkner prize, Wideman has remained painfully intimate with the cancers of violence, drug use and institutionalized poverty that afflict the African-American community. Success has not given him a reprieve from that.

God’s Gym: Stories, Wideman’s latest dazzling collection of short fiction, reveals what happens when a writer of such prodigious facility wrestles with the demon of storytelling itself. Why does he tell these stories? What purpose do they serve, and what solace will they provide if they cannot alleviate his loved ones of the pain they have experienced?

Readers used to short fiction coming from a safe remove ought to be forewarned here: God’s Gym is close to the bone. In “Weight,” for instance, a narrator tries to write his way into his mother’s mind through her body and discovers she is suddenly talking back, irritated by being used in fiction. “That’s what upset you, wasn’t it,” the narrator quips back. “Saying goodbye to you. Practicing for your death in a story.”

“Hunters” begins as a story about a drive-by shooting and then unfolds into a tale about a man relaying that incident back to us, critiquing his own telling of it. This kind of doubling occurs throughout God’s Gym, and it’s never distracting, in part because it’s so genuine. “Who Invented the Jumpshot” coasts into a story about a white man driving some black players to a game. Then Wideman brings it to a halt so he can cover his bases: “It’s fair to ask why, first thing, I’m inside the driver’s head. … A carful of bloods and look whose brain I pick to pick.”

Wideman’s prose always has had a worked quality to it, and it does here, too. But in the last 10 years, he’s layered in this jittery self-consciousness with restraint. He also knows it’s good to occasionally let go and simply play, as he does in “The Silence of Thelonious Monk,” which opens with a fistfight between two poets, turns into a love story and then delivers a biography of sorts on the jazz great from its title.

Wideman knows when to deliver a dirge, too, as he does in “Sightings,” an eerie piece about glimpsing a now-dead colleague in his university quad. As this story hints, there is a flinty whiff of mortality to these tales, in their willingness to go straight to the heart of the matter but still call themselves fiction.

Clearly, Wideman has a reckoning to make, and aside from his obvious lyrical gifts, witnessing that on the page is one big reason why you should buy these stories, take them home and hold on tight.