Friday, September 17, 2010

Native Son by Richard Wright (unabridged audio book read by Peter Francis James)

A classic of African American literature — and indeed of any kind — author Richard Wright's Native Son is surprisingly accessible to the modern reader, since it is basically a crime novel with literary leanings. Bigger Thomas lives with his mother, sister, and brother in one room on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. They are so cramped, they have to turn away while the others dress, causing much embarrassment all around.

Bigger is not ambitious — and he actually seems a bit lazy — but a chance connection gets him a good job chauffeuring for the owner of the Thomases' apartment building, Mr. Dalton. Wright clearly shows the mixture of fear, shame, and anger that Bigger feels toward whites, and it is these conflicting yet combined emotions that cause most of his later trouble.

He is supposed to drive the Daltons' daughter, Mary, to the university his first night on the job, but she has him detour to meet up with her Communist boyfriend, Jan Erlone. The couple were previously the subject of a gossip newsreel viewed by Bigger and a friend earlier that day, a bit of a scandal since Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are most fervently not Red supporters.

Mary and Jan invite Bigger to hang out with them, whereupon they all get a little too drunk. Delivering the girl to her room late that night, Bigger nearly has his way with the barely conscious (but seemingly willing) Mary, but the blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room to check on her daughter. Bigger panics, fearing the worst if he is found in the bedroom of the white girl. He reaches for a pillow....

I don't have to tell you what happens next. And Wright doesn't shy away from any of it. Every aspect is there on the page: the fingernails scratching his hand, the glassy eyes, the realization of what he has done, his decision to cover it up and blame it on the boyfriend, his decision to simply make the body disappear, the planning, the trunk, the hatchet, the furnace ... and that's only part one of Native Son, entitled "Fear."

From there, Wright chronicles seemingly every detail of the aftermath, including Bigger's attempt to frame Jan, nearly successful through his overconfidence in the whites' underestimation of him, until his eventual slip-up in another moment of panic. Part two, "Flight," covers the manhunt as it slowly accelerates into a citywide search, resulting in another murder as Bigger tries to hide out in abandoned buildings during a snowstorm, surrounded by newspaper coverage and passionate discussions of him by both blacks and whites.

Part three, "Fate," shows the inevitable outcome: Bigger's capture, interrogation, and indictment. Wright showcases his fantastic characterization during the trial (easily as good as anything in Anatomy of a Murder) as both sides present intelligent, persuasive arguments in their favor. For this reason alone, aspiring writers should read Native Son to see how balanced presentation of the facts of the case results in gripping reading.

In fact, Native Son is probably one of the best written, plotted, peopled, and constructed novels I have ever read. (Small details presented earlier pay off later on in surprising ways.) It is most definitely one of the most powerful. Wright succeeds in presenting an indelible portrait of a time and place and the attitudes prevalent, while at the same time delivering a suspenseful narrative with a positive ending — though not necessarily a "happy" one.

Actor Peter Francis James lends gravitas to the audiobook of Native Son. His narrative voice is nicely detached, leaving Wright's words to speak for themselves. And James's characterizations are done with subtle changes. My only complaint is that Jan Erlone and lawyer Boris Max sounded very similar, and when the two were in the same room, it was hard to tell them apart, especially since their worldviews are so similar they were often reiterating what the other was saying. But his work superlative throughout, making the audio version a terrific way of introducing oneself to the work of Richard Wright and seeing why his work still resonates with readers seventy years later.

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