If Beale Street Could Talk

“It’s true that I haven’t seen much of other cities, only Philadelphia and Albany, but I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

“My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing.”

A classic New York love story: a girl (Tish) and a boy (Fonny) who have known each other almost their entire lives. He, artsy and from a troubled home; she, quiet and from a supportive family. They find each other as late teens, beginning a delicate courtship and plan to marry.

A classic American story: A black boy (Fonny) is in prison, arrested by a white officer and standing accused of rape while his pregnant girlfriend (Tish) and her family scrape together money to clear his name, even with the legal system set against them.

If Beale Street Could Talk is both.

At the heart of this book is Tish, a lovestruck young black woman who is otherwise unremarkable. But Baldwin imbues her with a vibrant humanity that allows the reader to live and love with her––her hopes, her fears, her anxieties, her joys, her hates––while Fonny sits in prison and his child grows inside her.

The main narrative unfolds over six months of Tish’s pregnancy. With Fonny in prison, her family (mother, father, and older sister) supports her, but they are also hard-pressed to pay for his legal fees since his own family has largely rejected him. Tish is his rock, and they are hers. We are convinced, because Tish is convinced, that Fonny is a victim of a broken system––arrested by a racist officer and pushed through a system designed to ensure his conviction. Too often, the only update Tish can offer on her visits is “soon.”

Tish cuts this story of frustrated determination with reminiscences of her life with Fonny. Here we see how she knocked out Fonny’s tooth as a child, her discomfort attending church with his family, the joy at meals supplied by employees at a Spanish restaurant, and the pain and excitement of the first time they make love.

Despite a recent adaptation of this book and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I only knew of Baldwin’s work second hand. His oeuvre was therefore a natural destination with my goal to read more books by African American authors this year. If Beale Street Could Talk did not disappoint. From first lines it is an astounding novel.

Baldwin’s prose is extraordinary. In this simple story, he brings Tish to life and gives her an unmistakable voice that most authors find aspirational. The tenderness and consistency of this voice in turn creates opportunities, whether punctuated by subtle differences in voice for other characters, scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, or points of hard observation about America.

On its own the love story between Tish and Fonny is syrupy sweet, but placed in If Beale Street Could Talk it balances the bleakness of Fonny’s crisis. By turns tender and angry, but always honest, Baldwin weaves a delicate tapestry around Tish, creating one of the best novels about American life that I have ever read. If Beale Street Could Talk might set a high bar, but I doubt it will be the last of Baldwin’s work I will read.

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I have also finished reading Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, a story set in Vermont about buried secrets come to light in the chaos after Hurricane Irene and have since begun Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.