Norman Mailer walks into a bar. Not just any bar, though: it's the legendary White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, and where, in the 1960s, a young jazz journalist from Buffalo, N.Y., named Ishmael Reed, liked to lurk and stargaze.
"I was so green," Reed remembers. "But I walked over. Told him he was the greatest writer since Chaucer. He invited me to join his party and bought me drinks all night. I love this town. I couldn't have made it as an author without coming to New York. But if I hadn't have left, I'd have perished from an overdose of affection. I was getting loved to death."
That's not hyperbole. For a writer whose sensibility has always tilted toward the surreal and experimental (Nathanael West was an early and important influence), whose political incorrectness has been so brazen, his public feuds with other writers (pre-eminently feminists) so frequent and bitter, and his critique of white America so relentless, it might seem astonishing that he's been as lavishly feted by the very establishment and in the very mainstream he typically excoriates. His books have twice been nominated for the National Book Award, and he's received a Los Angeles Book Prize, the Langston Hughes Medal, the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers' Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998 he received a MacArthur "genius" grant. He's been consistently productive, with nine novels, six poetry collections, eight books of essays, one libretto, 13 anthologies, and six plays. He blogs. He recently retired after teaching at Berkeley for 35 years. He's the founder of his own publishing imprint, his own jazz quintet, two online literary magazines, and a literary foundation that presents the annual American Book Award. Even the Reed home seems like a happy hive of continuous creativity: he and his wife of 40 years, the choreographer Carla Blank, co-edited the literary anthology, Pow Wow: American Short Fiction from Then to Now, and play in his quintet together, Reed on piano, Blank on violin. His imprint recently published his mother's memoir. And every Saturday morning, he holds an informal writing workshop with his two daughters—both writers—at a local Starbucks.
But Reed, now 73, proudly insists on wearing the mantle of the outsider. "I view myself as a one-man communication center that provides a check on propaganda attacks on besieged groups and individuals who don't have the means to fight back," he says. For a new generation, he might be most familiar as the Herzog-like character frequenting the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journal, condemning the bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn, and protesting damaging portrayals of black men in the films Precious and The Color Purple and in the television series, The Wire. Reed says, "My work holds up the mirror to hypocrisy, which puts me in a tradition of American writing that reaches back to Nathaniel Hawthorne."
In his latest book, Juice! (Dalkey), Reed holds his mirror up to the media coverage of trials—and especially its portrayal of black and Latino men—as his protagonist Paul Blessing becomes obsessed with the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and spectacularly unravels.
"Not only has the media become instrumental in deciding elections, but they now decide criminal cases. It's essentially a spare all-white jury that convicts people even before the first witness is sworn in. This doesn't happen anywhere else in the world," he says. "My book is a playful pastiche, but it raises serious reasonable doubt of O.J's guilt."
If there is a corrective to the power of the media, Reed says, it might be the Internet: "Facebook is important. I get to talk to a thousand, two thousand people a day. Kindle and Nook are important. The prices of books are coming down, and plus you get access to a worldwide audience. And the small presses are so important—that's where midlist writers are going to go."
It's this optimism about new technologies and his unwillingness to rest on his laurels—not to mention his humor, especially about his own reputation and public persona—that his critics overlook. But they can trust that nothing they say about Reed goes unnoticed.
"Since I don't like the modernist novel in which the omniscient narrator smothers his characters to death with psychoanalysis, they called my characters cartoonish. So I made this new character of mine a cartoonist."
He laughs. "I've always been in a dialogue with my critics."