Ishmael Reed, “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” (1967) – Ishmael Reed is a fascinating and frustrating figure, who’s in the news again at the moment, having written a play critical of musical sensation “Hamilton” and its creator. At one point considered to be something like the future of American literature, between changes in fashion and his own pugnacious relationship with other writers, the years since the early 70s have seen his star wane, though never extinguish completely. I don’t have the space to do a full examination of Reed’s career, though I plan on writing about him extensively in my next birthday lecture. What I feel confident in saying is that Reed worked to build a first, countercultural, and rough (in multiple senses of the word) draft of multiculturalism- and doesn’t play well with the other versions.
Most of that was in the future when Reed published “The Free-Lance Pallbearers,” his first novel. Set in the city state of HARRY SAM, named after its dictator HARRY SAM (both always in all caps), it’s the tale of naive young theologian Bukka Doopeyduk. He encounters various types- surreal satirical versions of black radicals, black and white liberals, nosy neighbors, mean in-laws, etc. One of those in-laws hits him with a “hoodoo” that gives him horns and generally collapses his life. He gets cured, finds his way to the (toilet) seat of power, uncovers its dreadful secrets, leads a mob against it and is turned against by the mob. All in just over 150 pages!
In my experience, Reed isn’t read for plot. He came to describe his novels as “conjurings,” using language to summon up alternate states of being, visions of a different world, that he walks characters through, rather than undertaking plot and character development in the traditional sense. It’s experimental, but in a way that’s both intelligent and pleasingly non-highbrow, borrowing from history, pop culture, jazz, and the long history of black art on both sides of the Atlantic. You don’t always get what’s going on but it’s generally an interesting ride, and very self-assured for a first novel. Some of what would characterize Reed’s later difficult turns — issues with women, contrariness for its own sake, a sort of spiritually-elitist disdain — is there in seed form here. But the sting is part of the experience of this particular part of American literature. ****