Ishamel Reed, “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down” (1969) – Ishmael Reed is a tricky figure. From a literary perspective, he is unquestionably one of the great twentieth century American writers. His lyrical voice — a reckless slangy prose-poetry — and satirical dream-logic vision has often been imitated (the “Illuminatus!” trilogy is, among other things, a dorky white pedant’s effort to do Reed- a Reed epigraph opens the trilogy) but never duplicated. He doesn’t get the praise and profile that would earn somebody because he has isolated himself since the 1980s in a cocoon of bitterness, resentment, conspiratorial thinking, and misogyny. I’ve heard he got in a fight with Alice Walker (among other things, he was one of the first to advance a criticism of the way white audiences eat up black women writing about black men as sexual predators) and she, in short, won. His worthwhile criticisms of the different flavors of chic radicalism with which he was surrounded in the Bay Area conflated with an increasingly rancid conspiratorial sexism, especially directed at black women, against whom he routinely addressed chapter-length rants in his novels. In many respects, his situation echoes that of Louis-Ferdinand Celine- a great prose innovator whose situation brought out the worst in him (and many others), where the real and undeniable motes in the eyes of others justify his decision to keep the beam in his firmly in place.
All that said… “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down” is early Reed (his second novel), and a triumph. A surrealist “neo-hoo-doo” western, like most of his novels it is less a narrative and more of a conjuring, a pastiche of historical, religious, literary, pop culture, and humor elements meant to immerse the reader in an entirely different way of seeing the world. What first attracted me to Reed was my interest in the way non-historians use history to construct alternate pasts. Reed imagined an alternate America tossed together from bits and pieces of lore, what was at the time new (and sometimes under-researched) history of marginalized peoples, and odds and ends he free-associated. This, he believed, was “real” America, an sort of outlaw tribal America beyond the reach of the forefathers-and-framers vision of American history kids learn in school. It isn’t, really, but it’s a fascinating use of history.
There’s a sacred drama aspect to YBRBD, a sort of allegory of the rise of racialized capitalism in the American west, and the fulfillment of a prophecy of its destruction. The main character, “the Loop Garou Kid,” a black cowboy/medicine man and possibly the Devil, avenges the destruction of a colony of children who had liberated themselves (this novel was finished in mid-1968) by raining satirical, mystical destruction on various surreal allegorical figures of mainstream society, thereby creating a new society in the west, a realm for the free play of imagination by diverse “tribes” of liberated freaky-types.
If you want to, you can read Reed’s later issues back into his earlier works. He was always a horny writer, which undoubtedly didn’t help him survive the literary waters of his time, and never “couth.” The Loop Garou Kid may fight for everyone’s liberation, but he can trust basically no one (except a helpful Native American) and especially can’t trust women unless they die. He pokes fun at a variety of would-be revolutionary types- you can’t really blame him, being where was, but it hints towards the way he eventually embraced a sort of postmodern heritage-politics (without ever going fully right-wing) and black capitalism. Still… it is an impressive work, and for me at least, great literature doesn’t need to have good politics or be produced by good people. *****