by Darryl Pinckney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I recently began to publish book reviews for A&U, one thing was very important to me. Not only would I review works dealing with AIDS and HIV, but I’d find different voices and varied perspectives. Darryl Pinckney’s latest novel gives us just that and more. Its protagonist is Jed, a young black man in the latter half of the eighties losing himself in the life of an American expat finding his way in the last days of divided Berlin.
Jed, a recent transplant from Chicago, is looking to recreate himself in Berlin. He’s newly sober after dropping out of college twice. A job dealing with PR and writing for a megalomaniac of an architect and urban planner looking to re-shape Western Berlin helps to keep him busy, he still flirts with danger a lot. He’s obsessed with a dive of a place called the Kiki Club and makes many friends and meets many men there. Pinckney doesn’t end the Isherwood references there; our protagonist is obsessed with Isherwood’s stories of Berlin. He initially lives in the maid’s quarters of a vast pre-war apartment. Instead of Frl. Schroeder, his landlady is his cousin Cello (née Rachael). Cello was a promising young concert pianist raised by and spoiled by Jed’s mother until an epic battle with stage fright ruined her career. She’s now the wife of a wealthy German manufacturing heir and distrusts her cousins nascent sobriety and initially fears her children coming into contact with AIDS.
Jed moves back and forth from his parent’s home in Chicago as he battles his demons. His fear of AIDS isn’t unlike his cousin’s either; it’s early days for the virus and Jed initially feels safer picking up much older men whom he doesn’t see as high risk. When back in Chicago, he and his family have an awkward encounter with the lesion-covered grandson of of an elderly relative who drops in for a visit. Both are guileless and refuse to acknowledge AIDS when questioned by Jed’s socially conscious mother even though the man is obviously suffering from Kaposi’s sarcoma. Like I said, it’s early days in the epidemic and this isn’t New York City or San Francisco, and Jed quickly wipes down the keyboard of the piano the young man played after he leaves.
Black Deutschland brings several things to life with a poignant honesty. The life and outlook of a young gay black man is one we don’t see often enough. Life in West Berlin in Communism’s last gasp of breath is beautifully rendered and remembered with a vivid sense of time and place. Most effectively we see black middle-class family life in the second half of the twentieth century. Over all of this a burgeoning AIDS crisis looms large and it is seen through eyes of those not living in the ground zeros of New York and San Francisco. All of this is brought to life with a brilliant use of metaphor and characters who are not always heroes but shockingly human and real.
John Francis Leonard writes A&U’s monthly Bright Lights, Small City column.