cover image High Cotton

High Cotton

Darryl Pinckney. Farrar Straus Giroux, $21 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-374-16998-5

This remarkably accomplished first novel about growing up as a ``nice Negro'' in conservative Indianapolis, Ind., is sure to put Pinckney, a journalist and critic, in the front ranks of new writers this season. Writing with passion and an elegant wit, Pinckney conveys the dedication, pride and hypocrisy that formed the society of ``upper shadies'' in the 1950s and '60s. The nameless narrator demonstrates extraordinary powers of observation and expression throughout this memoir-like work, which takes him from youth to the present. One of the first civil rights marches, in which he participates as a child, leaves him bewildered: ``My new shoes were covered with dust as fine as powdered ginger and I wanted to hurry home, to sink back into that state where good news for modern Negroes couldn't find me.'' That early cast of characters, from a powerful preacher grandfather and his wife, the difficult ``beige step-grandmother,'' to an old aunt who was ``paid to fidget with scissors,'' have had a greater effect on the narrator than he can calculate, and the farther he gets from them, the closer they crowd in his psyche. He seeks distance in the form of student activism, followed by expatriate life in Paris, but grandfather Eustace and those first experiences of Negro-ness have shaped, ultimately, the answers to the difficult question of identity and blackness. Pinckney's writing is provocative, exceedingly original and frequently hilarious. And in the aftermath of the Thomas/Hill debacle, its concern with upper-middle-class blacks should attract some extra attention. (Feb.)