Crabcakes: A Memoir

James Alan McPherson, Author
James Alan McPherson, Author Simon & Schuster $23 (288p) ISBN 978-0-684-83465-8
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
In this beautifully written, elliptical memoir, McPherson, whose short story collection Elbow Room won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978, exorcises but never adequately explains the writer's block that earlier hobbled him, though there are mentions of acute depression and reclusive withdrawal. Instead, he offers a nuanced, moving meditation on African Americans' survival strategies, on the personal abyss among whites and blacks, on the influence of place on character and the postmodernist self's difficulty in constructing a firm sense of reality in a constantly changing world. The first half of the book describes McPherson's wrenching separation in the late 1970s from Baltimore, a city he loves, and his move to Iowa, where he is a professor of English at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Contemplation of enjoying Maryland crabcakes, the spicy delicacy of the title, symbolizes his attempt to lift himself out of despair. Renewal came through his immersion in Japanese culture, and the book's second half recounts McPherson's trips to Japan in the '90s, where, as a black American, he found greater acceptance and communal spirit than he did back home. He flies a sometimes bitter indictment of Western civilization as decadent, marked by mechanization of life and emotional numbness. McPherson's intense mosaic combines James Baldwin's moral compulsion to testify and Ishmael Reed's iconoclastic experimentalism. Author tour. (Jan.)
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