Is there anything that makes a book heavier than the ideas, emotions, and notions we attach to them before we’ve even cracked the spine? Once again, my overly enthusiastic attitude has led me to a sharper pang of disappointment with James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.
In it, Tish (inexplicably short for Clementine) and Fonny (really Alonzo) are young, black, and deeply in love in 1970s-era New York. But Tish and Fonny are also in deep, deep trouble. Fonny’s been accused of rape and thrown in jail with his chances of getting out growing slimmer by the hour. Their wedding dreams dashed, Tish is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. Now as Fonny faces a lifetime away from the love of his life, Tish faces raising a baby alone.
Learning about Tish and Fonny’s New York is to learn about a New York that gets too often forgotten. A crueler New York. So forget the Hotel Chelsea and Patti Smith and forget Manhattan and forget Love Story. That’s not the New York you’ll find here.
Tish’s hatred of the city comes from a different place entirely:
“I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”
As we watch the city and its laws pummel the young lovers, it’s hard to see it any other way. It’s not the 1940s, it’s the 70s and things are supposed to be better, but Baldwin wants us to see just how slow the change has come.
It was a refreshing (and sorely needed) perspective to get—a kind of necessary slap in the face.
But the novel isn’t some dour tome full of nothing but the most brutal and unflinching realities. Tish and Fonny’s love is intoxicating. Baldwin captures the feeling of young love completely. There are passages you can’t help but smile at as you read. It’s hard (if not impossible) not to be invested in their futures. You want them to be together; you want them to succeed, to overcome, to triumph.
Unfortunately, every now and then I’d stumble upon a note of sexism in a passage that would give me pause. So much so, that I had to do a little digging once I was done to see if I was alone in my concern (I wasn’t).
But each time this happened, I was surprised for some reason. I’d find myself thinking, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Who invited you?”
As the story progresses, it soon becomes abundantly clear who the real center of the story is. Stacia L. Brown said it best in her piece for Gawker, “It’s clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin’s main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny.”
And she does, over and over and over again. All while the novel draws your attention to Fonny—will he be released? Can the charges be dropped? Will he see his baby born?
These questions just seem to matter more to Baldwin than what Tish will do, how she’ll survive, how she feels. They matter more than whether Tish can be anything except a mother and a lover.
She’s characterized as naive, and in desperate need of Fonny’s chauvanistic protection. It couldn’t help but leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth.
“Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.”
To put it ineloquently: gross.
It was hard not to be disappointed. It didn’t stop my enjoyment, though. Baldwin was using this highly specific scenario to explore so much about family, African-American families in particular. To show a loving, caring relationship. The strength of the black community. To applaud it in light of white society’s attempts to snuff them out.
I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed Beale Street more without the weight of my own expectations? I’m not sure how to get them under control, to be honest. Excitement over a book is so exhilarating and lovely. It’s just difficult when you’re eventually confronted with something that’s not in any way explicitly bad—just disappointing.
That said, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Baldwin, but I’ll know to temper my expectations. Not because Baldwin’s not capable of exceeding them, but because I’ll take a happy surprise over frustration any day.
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