Jabari Asim Revisits Realism
While reading the uncorrected page proofs of Jabari Asim's Only the Strong: An American Novel (Chicago: Agate, 2015), I take a break to suggest to a poet who knows St. Louis intimately that he might like this novel. He might like how the novel minimizes those stereotypes too often taken as givens when some writers depict contemporary life and the city. Only the Strong avoids parading its characters as if they were ads for a famous brand of American beer; the story doesn't pander to readers who are in a hurry for a fix. Asim, as I later informed one his fellow first-novelists is not selling the designer drugs of urban literature.
Asim wants his readers to have the equivalent of listening to Jerry Butler's 1969 recording of "Only the Strong Survive" and Butler's 1971 duet with Brenda Lee Eager of "Ain't Understanding Mellow." Popular music of the 1960s is a crucial element in the novel, and astute readers will take advantage of the aesthetic pleasure that audio memory of the golden oldies provokes. Asim's take on realism is neither magic nor social in the sense that traditional criticism would use those variants. His realism is real in the sense that Roberta Flack would force you to compare to what.
People from the inner circles of American publishing want to compare Asim to Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler and Edward P. Jones. And there's more than a grain of precision in doing so for the purposes of marketing. On the other hand, Asim is savvy about levels of publishing and is smart enough not to invite his readers to confuse what is reportedly pathological and correctly stereotyped with what nuanced fiction refracts about what is "normal." He writes with just the choice of diction and careful use of allusions to enable Only the Strong to survive in a vortex of complicated reader responses. Many a first novel is so busy with its story that it forgets its language. That is not the case with Asim's work.
For an older generation that lets John A. Williams, Alice Walker, and John Oliver Killens set bars for good fiction, Asim does not disappoint. If asked what is good about his work, a few of us elders will reply, without apology, "It is good for the purpose of assaulting your postmodern ears that have been theorized to be deaf." It is good to remind us that humanity does not willingly inhabit a zoo of correctness. As a novelist, Asim earned the respect that in an imagined past he would have got from Ralph Waldo (either Emerson or Ellison; take your pick). Writing about St. Louis as a lifescape named Gateway City, Asim moves the plot along smoothly by using subtle indirect discourse as well as sympathetic authorial control. His characters are truly characters more than they are social types. If you can dig what President Obama preached in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, you can dig the amazing grace of Only the Strong. Do not confuse grace with perfection. Grace has just those slight flaws that rescue us from "a will to historical forgetfulness" and confirm that our consciousness "is a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting, and by our hopeful suspension of final judgment as to the meaning of our grievances" (I just stole the quoted words from Ellison's essay "The World and the Jug.") If you know Jack, you know what Ellison proclaimed and what Asim delivers is the real thing.
Asim's novel does echo some typical features of how Himes dealt with the urban condition; it has some very tender reminders of how Killens handled the truth of relationships between women and men in 'Sippi. And something provocative might emerge from using geo-spatial software to text-mine Only the Strong. The characters, regardless of their moral vices or virtues, do "represent" what went down back in the day across the river from East Boogie. Asim is very clear that those who survived then and those who continue breathing in the non-fictional present will have scars. No one with the probable exception of Reuben Jones' youngest son survives Gateway City without a scratch. Like music, baseball as played in the Negro League is a crucial structuring device in the novel; every time you think you know what's coming across home plate, Asim throws a curve you did not anticipate. The ending of the novel skates on some thin ice and threatens to fall into Lake Melodrama, but Asim maintains his cool, his ceremony of poise" throughout the four main segments ---"Leg Breaker," "Tenderness," "Trouble," and "The Storm." He knows just when to insert motherwit from the laughing barrel and when the text can bear Mozart or the seductiveness of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" monologue.
One of the best novels published so far in 2015, Only the Strong repays a patient reading. Asim's affection and respect for St. Louis and some of the people who lived there in the 20th century signal that African American literature thrives.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. June 28, 2015