cover image The Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka

The Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, Imamu Amiri Baraka, LeRoi Jones. Lawrence Hill Books, $32 (480pp) ISBN 978-1-55652-346-5

Known for his poetry, plays and essays, Baraka, formerly Leroi Jones, hasn't been recognized for his searing, dense, experimental fiction, but that oversight will be corrected with this latest collection of his work. Fans of the activist-writer will immediately recall the two major segments of this volume, ""Tales"" and ""The System of Dante's Hell,"" both well-received works from the 1960s. As a survey of Baraka's writings in prose, the book accurately displays the full range of the wordsmith's skills: from his bold, groundbreaking efforts as an influential member of the post-Beat Lower East Side art scene to his controversial cultural nationalism and his Marxist conversion. Although three previously uncollected short stories, ""Suppose Sorrow Was a Time Machine,"" ""Round Trip"" and ""the man who sold pictures of god,"" fail to hit the heights of quality and innovation of the yarns that follow, they hint at Baraka's potential and creative powers. Baraka exceeds those expectations in the short, explosive fragments in his 1965 ""The System of Dante's Hell,"" notably in ""Circle 7"" and ""Circle 8."" He uses the fictional form as an autobiographical vehicle in the 1967 ""Tales,"" reaching in the bluesy ""Going Down Slow"" and the classic ""The Screamers."" His impressive hybrid of literary styles spotlights lives defined by oppression and poverty, employing his unpredictable, jazzy, sometimes manic voice to twist Western forms to suit his ever-evolving black aesthetic. While his later ""6 Persons"" may not rival his earlier explorations of themes of violence, sex and race, it is still innovative in its recounting of his life from various point of views, peaking with the ""I"" and ""They."" This collection offers an excellent alternative look at one of the legends of African-American letters, frequently quite different than that revealed in his two autobiographies. (Apr.)