Set in New York City, Another Country presents a group of friends and artists struggling not to be wrenched apart by race, sexuality, and ambition.
The novel begins with Rufus, a bright and kind black drummer from the South, who has forsaken his musical promise and sanity in the name of loving a white woman. Not being able to believe she could sincerely love a black man, he has physically beaten her into insanity. While she rots in an asylum, his ignominy has left him homeless and isolated. He makes one last appearance at the home of his best friend, Vivaldo, a white-irish writer who has spent the last years of their friendship trying in desperation to prove to Rufus how very deserving of love he is. Vivaldo showers him with affection and brings him out to a bar to see their friends Richard and Cass, a bohemian couple nearing middle age. Rufus has a few drinks, smiles softly, and disappears again, this time to hurl himself off a bridge.
The rest of the novel is something of an apostrophe to Rufus. Eric, an old friend and ex lover of Rufus’, returns from a few years in Paris to see how all of his friends have changed. Vivaldo takes up a love affair with Rufus’ sister, Ida, who is as dubious as her brother to believe a white person’s feelings for her. As Ida pursues a vocal career, Vivaldo struggles with a novel. Cass and Richard, who have served as mentors, seem to have become painful symbols of what happens when Art grows old. Richard finally publishes a novel: it is a crime mystery of great commercial success and acclaim which seems to Vivaldo and even Cass a concession that Richard will never reach brilliance.
As Vivaldo watches Cass and Richard’s once idealized marriage fall apart, and he and Ida’s relationship grows into a competition of artistic success, he bemoans the feeling of possibility that seemed, once, to be everywhere; as much as he misses Rufus, he wonders whether his friend made the right choice getting out. Eric and Cass begin sleeping together and develop a relationship which is unique in its honesty. Neither feign that it might be love, though they perhaps wish it could be.
The beauty in Another Country is that it permits a reader to at once lament and celebrate the ways in which we use each other to further our own ideas of self. Baldwin’s relationship with humanity is stunning in its ability to forgive and understand. Though his characters err and ache, though they hurt each other needlessly, the author’s presentation of them is hopeful. By the novel’s close it is clear that Rufus’ death has been a gift of sorts: his mourning friends have been compelled to try and love harder, sing louder and longer, and create art that will outlast them.