Disgruntled: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
304 pp., 33.0
Ruchama King Feuerman
My husband, a psychoanalyst, once said, "You're only as smart as your pain."
I'm not exactly sure what that means, but Kenya, Asali Solomon's heroine in Disgruntled, has a lot of smarts and is in a lot of pain. In fact, she is in soul pain—the pain that comes before one even knows what it is. And pain is the dark un-melodic background dirge to this coming-of-age tale.
Disgruntled, set in Philadelphia in the 1980s, traces the arc of Kenya's young life from when she first lives with both parents, then, later, with her mother and step-father in one of Philadelphia's more upscale neighborhoods, and then as she makes her way—or tries to—on her own through various food-service jobs of the kind that America is so good at serving up.
Fortunately for the reader, Kenya is a Holden Caulfield of a girl who casts her wry gaze on everything and has an acute ear for the phoniness and double dealings of the adults and classmates around her. She is not beautiful, nor is she brilliant in the conventional sense, but through plain talk and plain-think she becomes a philosopher.
Kenya's early life is crammed with rules: no eating pork, because, as her father explains, "white people forced slaves to eat hog guts"; no watching TV shows like Good Times, because, as her mother Sheila says, "watching black people on TV acting the fool was worse than not watching any at all." "God" isn't acceptable, but "Creator" is, and forget about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. With such ideological baggage, it's no wonder Kenya is an outsider: "By fourth grade she was down to one friend."
Johnbrown, her Cornell-educated father who instructs Kenya to call him Baba, takes on random menial jobs and is forever working on The Key, a sort of manifesto for black people that will combine elements of Malcolm X, Ellison, Du Bois, and others, and make mincemeat of Freud, too. He'll go back to school and get a regular job only after The Key is finished, he says.
A group of like-minded black adults—the Seven Days—assemble in Sheila and Johnbrown's living room twice a month to thrash out exactly how to do good for their community, and how radical one should be in going about this, Johnbrown being the most radical. And all the while, Kenya is listening in, observing or dozing on her mother's shoulder, taking in the atmosphere, as if by osmosis. You might think any lively kid would resist such heavy doses of dogma, but these are not just brittle rules. They come from a strong narrative, if not always a loving frame. Kenya more or less goes along with her family's world. The rules are part of the glue that holds the family together, something she wants at all costs. In fact, when Kenya's childhood friend Charlena admits her parents may get a divorce, Kenya "suck[s] in air sharply … . It was something so dramatic they made movies, TV movies, and specials about it." As for her own family, Kenya can't conceive of her parents divorcing. The very thought is excruciating.
But this close-knit, seemingly purposeful life falls completely apart when Johnbrown takes up with and impregnates Cindalou, an attractive younger member of the Seven Days. He ridiculously shares his wish for of all five of them—Johnbrown, Sheila, Kenya, Cindalou, and the baby—to live together under the same roof (of course, with Sheila supporting them all). Before Sheila casts him out in a fury, he says to Kenya, "You're my life." But this of course is the promise of a narcissist.
In the hands of a less gifted writer, Johnbrown would be rendered a cartoon, an egotistical nut. (We're all familiar with the trope of a middle-aged man's libido leading him to deranged thinking.) But Solomon draws a portrait of a man who is principled and wants to be benevolent, even as he is bigoted and misogynistic and interminably in love with his own ideas.
When Sheila and Kenya move to an apartment in a "better" neighborhood, in West Philadelphia, and settle in, it dawns on the reader that Kenya and her mother have lost much more than a home, a father, and a husband. Bit by bit they lose their layered way of seeing the world, a coherence and a community. Mother and daughter are leading a blinkered existence on the margins of an America that has promise but, so it seems, no soul.
Sheila undergoes a transformation, abandoning her political beliefs, changing her hair style to look more conventionally pretty, and sending Kenya to the privileged Barrett School for Girls (mostly white), where Kenya discovers what her father meant whenever he talked about the shame of being alive. It was "in fact the shame of being black and having a mere ten minutes to untangle your hair in the locker room after swimming." For Kenya, being black is a never-ending stomach ache.
Kenya has a word to describe everything. What she does not have is a language for the love and hatred that she feels for her deeply compromised parents. Sheila's attempt to enforce class norms ends in her becoming an object of ridicule. Somehow with all of her smarts, she fails to see what men are, at least the men she chooses. As for Johnbrown, despite all his soaring political rhetoric and his black man's pride, he cannot master himself. The only people he has succeeded in mastering are various women. He gets all of his women under one roof, in a Pennsylvania commune-style setting, with one of the women—white, ironically—footing the bill by drawing on her parents' trust fund. Kenya is unable to make sense of his life despite the powerful love she has for him. She seizes on her father's rage, and it both elevates and diminishes her. She alternates between a wounded stance and a rejecting one.
At the core of the novel lies the gruesome true story of Frank Lloyd Wright's butler, a black man from Barbados who set fire to the famous architect's home and murdered the escapees with an axe. Johnbrown is obsessed with this story. He tells members of the Seven Day, "Look, you can't tell me that a mass murder doesn't say more than a mass march. What the brother understood was the power of rage. I'm guessing that more regular outbursts by seriously disgruntled black employees would achieve more than three hundred sixty-five days of peaceful marches … . [W]hat I'm talking about is anarchy. Black anarchy."
Throughout the novel, Johnbrown returns to the theme of the axe-wielding butler, completely immersing himself in the man's point of view. His fixation on and attraction to the butler's behavior struck me as enraging, repulsive, and impossible to understand—until the book's last sentence, when everything fell into place.
But it's not only Johnbrown who identifies with the butler. This is above all Kenya's story. The depth of her humanity keeps vibrating, even through all of the dehumanizing experiences she has to endure. One can't help aching and rooting for her, thinking about her after the book has been set aside, believing, praying she has become smarter than her pain.
Ruchama King Feuerman is a novelist and writing coach. Her most recent book is In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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