Darryl Pinckney’s quietly provocative new novel, Black Deutschland, appears 24 years after his impressive debut, High Cotton, and revisits the dilemmas of black identity. Jed Goodfinch, a young African-American writer, is fleeing the constrictions of race in America. He arrives in West Berlin in the early 1980s already damaged—in his twenties, he is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict—but filled with brio for the bohemian life he anticipates. A celebrated architect has commissioned him to write a book, and Berlin holds the promise of free-spirited homosexual romance that AIDS has extinguished in the States. Steeped in Christopher Isherwood’s lore of queer Berlin, Jed fantasizes a sexual emancipation to match the decadent last years of the Weimar Republic. In his mind await a string of “white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.”
Pinckney, a literary critic and essayist whose work frequently appears in The New York Review of Books, has constructed an unconventional novel more intent on telling than showing. The narrative shifts freely, unpredictably, but with a cerebral coolness, from subject to subject, Europe to America, present to past, from personal drama to reflections on black history or the mission to reconstruct Berlin. The storytelling is fractured. The plot is made of scenes intercutting other scenes, of delayed resolutions. It’s not always easy to follow what’s going on, but re-reading is a rich experience, as pieces come together to illuminate each other.
Pinckney’s protagonist romanticizes his role as “The Negro in Europe,” proclaiming the streets belong to the young like him. This is the grandiosity of youth, which he will lose soon enough. From the start, an erotic life eludes him. Jed doesn’t wield the reckless charm required for high sexual adventure. After declaring his desires, he sits back, waiting for others to make a move. The reader is left to wonder why. Is he inhibited by a sense of insecurity as a black man in a white world?
Elusiveness and indirection, as literary strategies, are the hallmark of Pinckney’s storytelling, and they underline Jed’s pathos.
I was not Invisible, I was that worse thing, Unwanted, a sign badly written and stuck with masking tape on my back. I was wearing the wrong thing. I went out anyway, to Kreuzberg, by taxi, left alone in a corner in every gay bar I entered.
Jed confesses he lives too much in his head, not enough in reality, and it’s the unreality of West Berlin itself that attracts him. Berlin in the 1980s is a kind of theatrical no-man’s land, a war-scarred capital demoted to a remote outpost of Western liberalism in the heart of Communist East Germany. “A disco ball behind the Iron Curtain,” as Pinckney writes in one of his many glittering sentences. In this marooned city of misfits, artists, addicts, and cultural consumers, Jed seeks out a community of Americans at a dive bar in the grimy neighborhood around the main train station.
The expats nursing drinks or smoking hash at the ChiChi are black men like Jed, mostly GIs and jazz musicians whom he met on past visits to Berlin. Newly sober and purposeful, Jed is both at home and isolated among them, falling back into recreational drug use, yet a different kind of man, university-educated, bookish, an intellectual with a professional life among the hipsters who surround Rosen-Montag, the star architect who is Jed’s employer.
Pinckney has lived in Berlin. He knows the role of the outsider. Jed is neither part of the black working class, nor at home in the artsy white world. Even in a crowded room he seems cloaked in a mournful lonesomeness, yearning for intimate contact. Occasionally he seeks refuge in a one-night stand. He falls hard for Manfred, a junior architect on Rosen-Montag’s team who is doggedly heterosexual, but not beyond toying with his burbling desire. Manfred comes to life with brilliant particularly; Pinckney gives him raw opinions and an earthy flirtatiousness. Once Manfred leaves town, the narrative loses a source of energy. Jed’s subsequent pretty-boy African lover evokes tender feeling in him, but he is no match for Manfred on the page.
If the ChiChi is the womb of dereliction that Jed keeps crawling back to, his cousin Cello’s bourgeois household embodies the upper-class respectability he admires. Cello offers to let him stay the maid’s room. A preening classical pianist married to a prominent German businessman, Cello is a mother of four and was once the intimidating prodigy of Jed’s childhood. He remains in awe of the ruthless self-discipline with which she went after her art. “The Negro Achiever,” he calls her, “a species of secular saint.”
He sees her in a double light, recognizing that her marriage to a wealthy white man makes her an unqualified success to their family back in Chicago, yet aware that she failed to achieve a concert career because of a pathological stage fright. Beneath the surface they are equals, bound by old wounds of being “fat black kid[s] at a mostly white school.”
The profound cracks in Cello’s façade—instability and a cocaine habit—come to light only later, after her husband kicks Jed out of their apartment. Through Cello’s shattering and Jed’s eventual decline, Pinckney offers a bleak vision of black lives: the ambitious “Negro Achiever” and the “Negro Underachiever,” as Jed dubs himself, are similarly tragic figures, destined to failure almost from the start.
Though Pinckney never overtly attributes Jed’s addictions to the race problem, to social discouragement, Cello diagnoses him when he drops out of the University of Illinois. The problem is he “did not believe [himself] to be good enough,” she says, and he should lower his expectations because black students like him are “psychologically disadvantaged.” Her criticism deflects from her own disastrous performance at a crucial concert the previous year, where she vomited all over herself.
Pinckney’s characters don’t rage against the injustices of white society. Instead they reveal the wholly personal, internal effect of racism in the shameful self-doubt that plagues black men and women. Despite the presence of nurturing adults in their lives, despite the pride instilled in them, Jed and Cello and the descendants of the Talented Tenth have absorbed America’s lesson of black inferiority.
“Mom used to say, ‘You have to kid yourself. How else do you keep going?’” Jed recalls. “That’s always been my motto: keep kidding yourself.” As a homosexual, a relapsed addict, and a black man, he has plenty of reasons to kid himself. It’s how he survives.