Friday, May 2, 2014

#74 - "Native Son" by Richard Wright

I've just completed perhaps my fastest read since I started through these 100 books. Native Son, my 74th book from Time's list, and its 430 pages only took four days to read. Of course books like Animal Farm took less time, but you know what I mean...

I'll assume the chief reason I read it so fast, was that I enjoyed it so much. It was a real page turner, and one I couldn't put down. But while I couldn't wait to read the next page, at the same time, I dreaded reading that page. This book was a tragedy in the truest sense of the word. It was gut wrenching, heartbreaking, frustrating, and maddening. And wonderful.

Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African-American man lives in a rat-infested, one-bedroom apartment on Chicago's South Side. Living in quarters so cramped, he and his brother are forced to turn their heads when his mother and sister wish to change, as there simply isn't any privacy in their one room.

As the novel begins, Bigger is preparing to start a new job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, a wealthy family on the other side of town. While enthusiastic about having the chance to make some money, he's also apprehensive about working for white people; a race he's not afraid of, but a race he also doesn't trust, and at the end of the day, dislikes.

To put it mildly, Bigger's fist day on the job doesn't go well, and before the night is through, he has accidentally killed his employer's daughter, attempted to cover up his crime in a gruesome manner, and proceeds to live the next week of his life on the lamb. He is eventually caught, after committing yet another murder, and finds himself on trial for his life.

I think I enjoyed almost everything about this book. The plot was gripping, and nearly had me turning pages faster than I could read them. Usually it takes me 40 or 50 pages to really get into a book, but I was hooked on Native Son from the get-go.

The characters were dynamic, complete, real people, and Bigger Thomas was one of the most interesting protagonists I've read from the List. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Harry Angstrom from Rabbit, Run. Like Harry, Bigger isn't a very good person, and it's almost impossible to cheer for him. But he's very interesting, and despite his many character flaws, I was sympathetic to his situation.

When I say sympathetic, never did I feel sorry for Bigger because he was on trial; he deserved nothing less for his heinous crimes. What I mean is that I often pitied Bigger, I suppose because of his lot in life; the conditions under which he lived, the sense of hopelessness he felt, and how little he really understood about the world. It was heartbreaking to read Bigger's plan for covering up his crimes and placing the blame on somebody else. When he thinks he's outsmarting everybody, you see how far in over his head he really is.

I also felt myself getting lost in this book's world. The settings and atmosphere were put to paper so well, I could feel the cold and isolation of Chicago's south side in the dead of winter. And I have such a strong idea of each setting in my head, that I feel I could return there at any time. It's much the way I feel about Brideshead Revisited, which even four years after having read it, I can still picture perfectly in my head.

Perhaps most impressive for me though, was the central theme of racism in America. Yes, there are hundreds of books on the subject, but Native Son explores this topic from a very different angle, because Bigger is guilty of his crimes, and not wrongly accused because of the color of his skin. Instead of making him the victim of racism, Bigger is the result of racism.

At his trial, Bigger's lawyer doesn't debate his guilt or innocence, but instead fights for Bigger's life, arguing for a life sentence instead of the electric chair. He wants the court to understand why Bigger committed his crimes. He wants the court to ignore the calls for blood from the mob outside, and try to understand how the conditions that Bigger had lived in his whole life, actually made his acts more likely than unlikely. Basically, if you keep pushing somebody down their entire life, you shouldn't be surprised when they eventually try to get up.

Never is the case made that Bigger isn't guilty, and never does the author try to make excuses for his actions. The argument that Wright makes is that there are factors involved in why Bigger commits crimes other than him simply being a "bad seed." There's a reason uneducated minorities commit more crimes than wealthy white people; and it has nothing to do their temperament.

What I find so interesting, and in many ways depressing, is how little things have changed since this book was written 75 years ago.  But that's another topic for another time.

I must admit, this was one of the most depressing books I've ever encountered, there were times I felt sick to my stomach reading it. But this isn't a knock on it in any way, in fact I think it's a commendation. If a book can incite this much emotion from a reader, it must be doing something right. This book may have got me thinking more than all but a few other novels. While I was reading it, and since I've finished, I haven't been able to stop talking about it. There are so many topics I'd like to discuss and explore; much more than I could ever fit into this post.

All of this reminds me of why I enjoy reading through this list so much. Native Son is another example of a great book I never would have read had it not been for this project. I think it would be worth reading five Naked Lunch-es to discover a book like this one.

Next up will be White Teeth by Zadie Smith, one of the few books from the 2000's, on the List.

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