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The Cattle Killing.

John Edgar Wideman, Boston: Houghton, 1996. 212 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by

Philip Page California State University, San Bernardino

John Edgar Wideman has done it again. He has written another spellbinding, provocative - and difficult - novel. This tour de force, like his previous three novels - Sent for You Yesterday, Reuben, and Philadelphia Fire - weaves multiple stories, storytellers, times, and places into a complex fabric focusing on the issues of individual identity and isolation, the need for community but its potential breakdown, and the therapeutic power of telling and listening to stories.

Like Wideman's novella "Fever," the primary setting of The Cattle Killing is in and near late-eighteenth-century Philadelphia during a plague. The primary narrator, an unnamed young African American preacher, retells his story of meeting and falling in love with an African American housemaid; her impregnation by her white employer, Dr. Thrush; and her disappearance into a lake carrying a dead baby. Wideman intersperses this story with many other stories, principally those of the young preacher's two years' residence with an interracial couple, Liam and Mrs. Stubbs; of Liam's indentured servitude in England; and of Mrs. Thrush's work in an African American orphanage. Hovering behind these interrelated stories is the reported story of the Zhosa who, facing subjugation by Europeans, killed their cattle in response to a false prophecy. And the novel is framed by two pseudo-autobiographical sections, which depict the author leaving a writers' conference to read portions of the novel to his father, and his son Dan reacting to the novel.

As in his previous three novels, Wideman complicates this one not only by incorporating multiple stories, but also by entangling the telling of these stories. Within the primary narration by the young preacher, Liam becomes the first-person narrator of his story of working for Mr. Stubbs in his slaughterhouse and of spying on Stubbs's son in his escapades with male-midwives and "resurrectionists" looking for fresh cadavers to dissect. Wideman's persona narrates the opening section, and his son narrates the epilogue, which includes a letter from Dan to his father; Dr. Thrush's wife, who is blind, dictates her story in the form of a diary to her maid; Dr. Thrush writes letters to his wife; and the orphans testify in the form of depositions and first-person accounts. There are also multiple and often interactive listeners and readers: For example, the preacher tells his stories to a sick lady who frequently asks questions and makes comments on his tales, and the maid interjects her sarcastic comments into Mrs. Thrush's journal.

Even more than in his earlier fiction, Wideman forces the reader to concentrate to follow the narration. He often changes tenses unexpectedly, sometimes in the same paragraph, usually moving from the past into the more immediate present. He routinely shifts between first and third person for the same narrator, and identification of narrators, characters, and settings is often delayed or ambiguous. Besides blurring these traditional boundaries, Wideman also blends apparent biography and fiction, historical research and fiction, and fantasy and reality. The shifting narration, the Chinese-box-like narrations and sub-narrations, and the metafictional conflation of fiction and autobiography create a rich collage of voices, perspectives, and stories. Like other Wideman texts, this one is richly intertextual, with references to several of Wideman's earlier works, allusions to other literary works such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Phillis Wheatley's poetry, and the inclusion of historical figures such as the painter George Stubbs and the physician John Burton.

Such narrative complexity has a purpose. Here, as in Wideman's previous fiction and his two memoirs, Brothers and Keepers and Fatheralong, Wideman's writing re-creates and thereby eloquently insists upon the salutary complexities of human life. For Wideman, each person is a composite of multiple selves, and communities are composed of the infinite relationships among individuals; therefore, stories that accurately reflect individuals and communities must be correspondingly complex. Thus, the "author" mixes his present identity as an accomplished writer with himself as a fifteen-year-old, like the boy whose murder he has just read about; and "Mrs. Stubbs," known only by her alias, is repeatedly described as not merely her present "self" but her many younger selves as well. More convoluted is the identity, or identities, of the young preacher's lover and auditor, who, rather than a single person, is a composite drawn from multiple, related stories: the beautiful young woman who gives the preacher a drink of water after one of his epileptic fits; the young woman with the baby; Kathryn, the Thrushes' maid, who becomes the preacher's lover and is raped by Dr. Thrush; and the "sick lady" whom he hopes to cure by telling the stories.

Readers are led to hope that all these are the same woman, but the chronology does not work because for Wideman linear time inaccurately represents the complexities of human experience. Since human consciousness constantly roams backward in memory and forward in hopes, fears, and visions, his novels are emphatically nonlinear. Consequently, The Cattle Killing abounds in foreshadowing, flashbacks, and interpolated times, often moving backward in chronological time rather than forward. When the preacher's auditor surmises, "I thought stories always go backward," the preacher responds, "Backward to go forward. Forward to go back." Because for Wideman humans' intricate webs of individual and communal consciousness have no beginnings or ends, the novel, like the preacher's stories, must be "untidy," must have "no beginnings nor ends."

Like the socially and psychologically devastated world of Philadelphia Fire, the fictional landscape of The Cattle Killing is bleak. Zhosa cattle are slaughtered as are various animals in the elder Stubbs's slaughterhouse; cadavers, such as that of a pregnant African woman, are dissected; Philadelphia is ravaged by plague; an unnamed white man nears death in his isolated cabin where his wife's corpse molders. Much of the violence is racial: Europeans' invasion leads to cultural suicide by the Zhosa; whites blame blacks both for causing the plague and for profiting from it; whites massacre Liam, "Mrs. Stubbs," and other rural blacks outside Philadelphia; the black orphans are brutally treated and then die when their orphanage burns down; Dr. Thrush hypocritically fails to support the city's persecuted blacks; the condescending Mrs. Thrush is oblivious to the hate she inspires in Kathryn and the orphans. For black characters, "this New World [is] a graveyard for African people" and "a country where madness reigns," and "God's absence [is] confirmed by evil everywhere raging." The young preacher cannot think of a story with a happy ending, because for him the world is "upside-down" and a "vale of tears" in which, echoing the slaughterhouse imagery, "people [are] an unbroken chain of sausages fed in one end and pulled out the other."

Throughout his fiction, Wideman explores the balance between isolation and community in fictional worlds similarly ravaged by hardship, violence, and racial discrimination. Brothers and Keepers and Sent for You Yesterday, for example, move cautiously toward re-establishment of love, empathy, and community, but here, as in Philadelphia Fire, isolation and broken communities predominate. Every character is isolated, even minor ones such as Bishop Allen, and even white ones such as Dr. Thrush and his wife. Some partially recover from their isolation: Liam regains his interest in talking and making love, and the young preacher is buoyed by his efforts to cure the sick lady. But such revival is short-lived, for Liam and Mrs. Stubbs are soon murdered, and when the orphans are killed the young preacher loses his faith and even his ability to narrate. Communities fail or become anti-communities: The Zhosa tribe mistakenly hastens its own downfall; Philadelphia citizens turn against themselves in response to the plague; the racially mixed congregation of St. Matthew's splits into a white one and a black one; the healthy black community of Radnor is destroyed; locked in the cellar at night, the orphans become an anti-community where individuality is erased and brutality thrives.

In such a grim world, it is necessary to try to foresee a better future. Several characters have visions or dreams that resemble traditional Christian imagery of apocalyptic purging and an earthly paradise to come. Wideman warns, however, against false prophecy, as in the African girl's prediction that the Zhosa cattle should be killed and in warnings from the Book of Ezekiel "against the prophets who have false visions and who foretell lies." Most vigorously, Wideman rails against anyone who prophesies denial, submission, violence, or bigotry - "the prophets of ghost dance, prophets of the cattle killing, prophets of Kool-Aid, prophets of bend over and take it in your ear, your behind, prophets of off with your head, prophets of chains and prisons and love thy neighbor if and only if he's you, prophets of one skin more equal than others and if the skin fits, wear it and if it doesn't, strip it layer by layer down to the bone and then the prophets sayeth a new and better day will dawn."

Whereas prophecy is often destructive, storytelling for Wideman is the most potent, and necessary, response to the dehumanizing conditions of life. In The Cattle Killing, the young preacher's stories deepen the mutual empathy and love that he and his "sick lady" share. He (and Wideman) know that "all stories" are returns to "memory, possibility, life." Here, as in other Wideman novels, there are endless stories and endless versions of stories, and the telling of a story often has more significance than the events themselves. At the end of his narration, the preacher, sounding very like Wideman, lyrically promises to tell his listener, and therefore the reader, all the stories, "to bring you as gifts, stories of my dead to keep you alive." The stories of each of the cities of the United States are "different stories over and over again that are one story," each one passing on the memory and the life "in one of the cities where I search for you, to join you, save you, save myself, tell you stories so my dead are not strangers, so they walk and talk, so they will know us and welcome us. Free us. To love." For Wideman, only our stories can cure us, unify us, teach us to be human: "Aren't we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space chanted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening."

Telling and listening to all the stories is crucial because they constitute the communal links between individuals, between the living and the dead, between present and past, links that are individuals' best protection against spiritual exile. To create and sustain community, the stories must be unlimited in number and scope, all versions must be valued, all stories must be recognized as true. Wideman's novel attempts to replicate that limitlessness by multiply interweaving places, times, events, narrators, characters, and even tenses and pronouns.

Universally relevant, these issues have special relevance for Wideman. Raised in the lower-class black community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, he has succeeded in the white-dominated academic and literary worlds. That success has meant the risk of separation from his familial and communal roots. Courageously, he has documented his re-immersion into his community, including the painful process of working through his guilt for his brother's imprisonment and his anger for his son Jake's. To use his repeated phrase, he has had to squeeze "through the needle's eye" of an unjustly harsh world. With The Cattle Killing, a fascinating expansion of Wideman's continuing confrontation with these personal and social nightmares, Wideman keeps on telling the stories that all humans need to keep on hearing.
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Author:Page, Philip
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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