The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden was a book I couldn’t put down. Non-stop narrative momentum takes us from Macon to 1930s Harlem to 1940s Paris to Buchenwald to 1950s Trenton and beyond with many stops in between. Lives centered on blues and jazz elicit passages of pure poetry: “On Saturday nights, white hankie in hand, Lizard showcased his gift--blowing high notes that scraped the ceiling, notes so low people half-expected to see clefts and trebles scuttling across the floor. Happy notes, sad notes, sexy notes, deep-in-the-bone weary notes. Notes that recounted stories so primal, Lizard couldn’t have had an earthly acquaintance with them--but there they were, streaming from his trumpet like ribbons.”
Harlan builds a life out of his music that takes him places, though his parents’ home in Harlem remains the heart of it all. In Harlem he meets his “brother from another mother,” Lizard, brushes shoulders with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, drinks endlessly, smokes pot, sleeps with women, plays his guitar.
In the midst of all this living there’s tragedy. In youth and in adulthood come events so shocking and sad (and so brilliantly, memory-searingly written) that I had to put the book down and take deep breaths and wait for the numbness to fade before I could resume. Fortunately, McFadden has a deft touch when it comes to injecting humor into the story, and there were countless times where I found myself grinning or chuckling.
The Book of Harlan is a book about a life. A man and those who live in his orbit. The story of Harlan but also the story of his mother and father and friends and lovers. From the Harlem Renaissance to World War II to the Civil Rights Movement, here is the American history of a man and those who loved him. Read it.
Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.