Sunday, September 19, 2010

Black Cracker by Josh Alan Friedman

The experts all agree: Josh Alan Friedman’s autobiographical novel Black Cracker (Wyatt Doyle Books, 2010) offers up some of the funniest lit to appear in recent history. The Hound called it “a cultural tell-all that will leave you howling.” Author Joe Bonomo noted that it’s “a very funny and closely observed book about growing up as an outsider — in Friedman’s case as the only white kid in an all-black school in Glen Cove, New York in the mid-1960s.”

Bonomo’s thumbnail synopsis gets to the source of all the comedy in Black Cracker, namely, the protag’s own outsider status and the wonders and conflicts--cultural, economic, historical, & racial--that ensue. Read on as a grade school version of the author, known to his schoolmates as Jock, discovers the bastardized local kidspeak for Aunt Jemimah: Hecha Momma. Bear witness to the nightmarish lesson, delivered at the hands of a brood of drunken black women, that, contrary to delusion, Jock is not just very light-skinned negro. What’s not funny about being the lone, white, Jewish kid enrolled in the last segregated school in the New York area?

To call Black Cracker a coming-of-age tale, or bildungsroman, is not quite accurate. While the main characters do get to contemplate the death of one of their pals, none but the most worldly among them, Bobo, a “held-back,” shark-skin clad, junior pimp in training, gains any first-hand knowledge of sex. By story’s end, these squirts are only beginning to peek up skirts.
What Friedman offers the reader is more like a rich look at a vanished world that was vaporizing just as his memory recorded it. And this is something for which Friedman, author of Tiles of Times Square and Tell the Truth Until They Bleed, has a proven ability. In addition to deftly rendering the inherent tension, humor, drama, and soul of the protag’s milieu, Friedman’s sketches of old Penn Station, Nedick’s hot-dog stand, and Yoo-Hoo billboards bearing Yogi Berra’s mug, lend to Black Cracker some of its most vivid moments.

What about that vanished world? What can we call it? Civil Rights era America? It just so happened that Friedman’s own childhood was well positioned to make that shift from innocence to whatever comes after just when the same was happening to American society (if "innocence" is what you can call white America's willful ignorance toward black America's simmering anger). Jock's experience at South School was but a part of all this. For him the period also marked the heyday of Famous Monsters magazine, the Old Timer’s Baseball Photo Album, and Beatle-boots. And what middle class, white baby-boomer wouldn’t wax a bit nostalgic for that stuff?

Now might be a good point to touch on another, confusing aspect of Black Cracker: Friedman’s handling of the notorious “N” word. What’s that you say? Oh, my, no... ha ha... not THAT “N” word (which the author uses liberally here), but the other "N" word: as in “N” for nostalgia. One could make the argument that in Jock’s day music and baseball were better, hot-dogs had more snap, and New Yorkers still knew how to fold the newspaper right. But how can any progressively minded person feel nostalgic for a period that also included segregated schools? Easy, right? That’s just life in America: old stuff always on the way out, new stuff always on the way in, and, in the so-called "classless society," everything depends on which side of the tracks you live. Friedman makes no bones about the fact that he has plenty to recall with fondness, like a secure middle class upbringing with progressive, artistic parents. Friedman’s father, the writer Bruce Jay Friedman, was the one to insist that Josh attend South School in the first place.

Often in Black Cracker, Friedman’s eye turns to subjects like the black shoeshine boys of old Penn Station, or the back porch chitlin’ eatin’ of his schoolmates’ people. Friedman consistently renders such scenes with an honesty, and thus a hilariousness, from which most modern English departments, and the anaemic lit they produce, would recoil in fear, lest they offend. That fear of offending, which makes of story-telling a lost form much like the popping boogie-woogie rags of the shoeshine boys, does not contaminate Black Cracker.

Go here to purchase a copy of Black Cracker.

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