Black and White, by Lewis Shiner

Subterranean Press, about it purveyors of such novels as this one, order this one, and this one, made an announcement last week that Lewis Shiner’s new novel, Black and White, was to start shipping last weekend, so I thought a Monday review would be good timing. The Subterranean Press edition is the only edition of this book, as far as I know. I’ve talked about the lovely book-objects that Sub Press produces so often that I won’t say any more here. I will mention that they auction books on eBay as seller ‘subpress’ quite often, and sometimes at bargain rates. Check them out!

Michael Cooper’s father Robert is dying, and he has asked to return to Durham, where Robert lived when he and Ruth (Michael’s mother) first married. There have been some questions that have plagued Michael for years, such as why do he and his mother get along so badly, and why has he never seen a copy of his birth certificate? Being back in Durham, where Michael was born, he starts looking for answers — and finds a whole lot more than he bargained for. Vodou, history, race relations, highway construction, and comics all combine to make the answers not quite what Michael was expecting.

This work is much more mainstream or historical fiction, with a dash of vodou, than anything else. For all that it is set in 2004 (close enough to today as I am writing this), there are significant flashbacks to the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. The magical parts of the story, which are mostly a vodou ceremony, can be explained by vodou as a religion rather than vodou as magic. That having been said, for a white, middle-class, Midwestern young’n like myself, Durham, North Carolina, even in 2004, is awfully close to an alternate reality. Certainly we have more than our own share of racism in my area, but for someone my age and location, race riots are something that happen in Los Angeles.

Other than the flashbacks, the book sticks to a tight third person point of view, centered on Michael. He’s a comic book artist by trade; he does the drawing, the inking, and the lettering all himself. While he spends a good deal of the book in a sort of shock, the rest of his reactions are almost painful to read. He has so many losses and so many discoveries in the space of a few weeks that I’m really surprised that he survived it all, intact. He’s definitely dynamic; it would be hard for him not to change with so many things thrown at him. Other interesting characters include Denise, Michael’s girlfriend; Roger, Michael’s comic-writing partner; and Mercy, to whom we are introduced in the flashbacks. Michael’s father doesn’t have much agency, and Ruth is a bit of a one-note character, even after her flashback. Minor characters are shown in only a few sentences.

I found this a difficult book to read, and not because of the number of words per page or the vocabulary. The primary events in the book are a racially-motivated murder and a race riot. A good deal of what is described in the book actually happened. There really is a (primarily black) portion of Durham called Hayti, and a good deal of it was destroyed to make way for a large white business park. IBM really did move there in the sixties. Some aspects of the book have been fictionalized; the Night Riders of the Confederacy do not exist, but obviously the KKK and other hate groups do. Wilmer Bynum and Randy Fogg don’t exist, but many men like them did, and I’m certain that more than one hate group has claimed responsibility for MLK’s shooting. It is absolutely horrific to think that events in this book (although not the murder) actually did happen. I cannot possibly have any idea what it would be like to live during that time, and in that area. This book gave me only the slightest taste, and it was frightening.

This is a book for adults, mostly because of the politics, philosophy, and violence. There is a little bit of explicit sex, but if that was all there was, I might recommend it for teens, as well. I would like to hear what an African-American reader of this book thinks; I do not know, but I believe that Shiner has captured something of the feel of the time and the location, and it is a powerful and amazing book. 5/5 stars.

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