I used to carry Isherwood around with me. I’d skip class for the day and go from the bar on North Wells Street to the bar on Woodlawn, lost in the daydream of being the rootless stranger in Berlin who seduced tough German boys.” So says Jed, a 20-something black, gay recovering alcoholic from Chicago who is the main character in Darryl Pinckney’s long-awaited second novel, Black Deutschland (FSG, Feb.). Inspired by the Weimar era, which was so eloquently captured in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Jed moves to West Berlin in the 1980s to live as an expatriate and to find and reinvent himself.
Black Deutschland arrives 23 years after the publication of High Cotton (1992), Pinckney’s semiautobiographical novel dealing with the black upper middle class, identity, conservatism, and radicalism in the ’60s, a story that began in his hometown of Indianapolis and extended to Paris. That novel established Pinckney as a new literary force and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction.
“High Cotton is more conscious of class than Black Deutschland,” Pinckney says. We are sitting on the second floor of the spacious, elegantly restored 1890 Harlem town house he shares with his partner, James Fenton, the British poet, essayist, and critic. “In Black Deutschland, Jed’s family owns a black newspaper that caters to the old-fashioned black market,” Pinckney says. “So class doesn’t come up in that way, because the family’s not that different than their employees, even though they live in different places.”
Between these two novels, Pinckney—a longtime staff writer at the New York Review of Books—published three nonfiction works. Sold and Gone: African-American Literature and U.S. Society (2001) is a critique of black American writing. Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (2002), compiled from Pinckney’s Harvard Alain Locke Lectures, profiles three black authors: J.A. Rogers, a self-taught historian and author of Sex and Race, who was obsessed with the hidden black ancestry of whites; Caryl Phillips, the West Indian novelist whose books Final Passage, The Atlantic Sound, and The Nature of Blood explore the black immigrant experience; and Vincent O. Carter, the Kansas City–born expatriate who penned The Bern Book, about his life in Switzerland. And Pinckney’s Blackballed: The Black Vote and Democracy (2014) surveys black political history from Reconstruction to Obama.
“I wrote Black Deutschland very quickly one summer, probably because I had a lot of it in pieces and fragments, sitting around over the years as false starts or notes,” Pinckney says. “And I think also—I don’t know how else to say it—but my parents aren’t around to read me anymore. I’m sorry about that. But it also means that I can write about things that I probably wouldn’t have [written about], this book being one of them.”
Black Deutschland offers a compelling and complex array of characters. “In the book, the real and invented are given equal weight,” Pinckney explains. “The architect Jed works for [Rosen-Montag] is pure fiction. But Jed also comes across Susan Sontag in a bookstore, and he goes to a Peter Serkin concert: two actual people in a fictional world.” The book also includes expats, intellectuals, artists, queers, neo-Nazi gangs, and other various misfits living near the Berlin Wall in the heady, hedonistic 1980s. “Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me,” Jed asserts.
But the novel also offers an intriguing substory involving Jed’s tenuous relationship with his black-newspaper-owning family in Chicago, and with his second cousin Cello, a status-seeking classical pianist whose career Jed sarcastically describes as “an Ibsen play in blackface.” Cello also lives in Germany and is the wife of Dram, a rich German businessman, and she initially helps Jed fit into German life. “She is the member of the family he’s curious about, is competitive with, and aspires to be,” Pinckney says. “She’s integrated into Berlin society just by being married with kids. But we never see her with much of a German life herself.”
One of the things that readers will not find in Black Deutschland is a popular but wrong-headed notion of blackness compromised by a willful immersion into, and embrace of, European culture. “No black character in the book is worried about being Eurocentric,” Pinckney asserts. “Certainly that would have been a debate at the time [of the novel]. Cello is interested in the music she’s interested in and nothing else. She’s not conflicted about what she’s doing. If she wants to play Brahms, she’ll play Brahms and still be a black girl.”
The novel is about black people and class mobility, but Pinckney acknowledges that police brutality is a horrific fact of life that all black people have to deal with regardless of class. (“You can be killed by the police; they don’t care if you’re a Phi Beta Kappa,” Pinckney warns during our conversation.) “I know a number of young people who became middle class through their education, or come from middle-class homes,” he says. “I know black kids who don’t even know any other black kids, except their cousins. And that’s enough. You wouldn’t look at these kids and say that they are Uncle Toms, or self-hating, or fleeing, or trying to be white, given the culture in which they live, which is very natural to them as kids. Identity is made up of lots of different things now. Different colors and patterns stand out at different times. Different instruments in the symphony of being are more distinct than others at different times.”
Pinckney’s own background is one such example of the many racial and cultural inventions and dimensions of African-American life. He was born in 1953 to a well-respected Indianapolis family. Pinckney attended public schools in his hometown and graduated from Columbia University, where he was heavily influenced by his writing teacher, Elizabeth Hardwick, the critic, essayist, and fiction writer, who cofounded the New York Review of Books.
“I did live in Berlin,” Pinckney recalls fondly. “People in New York in the ’70s were discovering Weimar and were discovering the culture, politics, and romance of that time. It was a period of great vitality in the arts, and of political disintegration. And I, like a lot of people in the late ’70s and early ’80s, identified with that [period].”
For Pinckney, the legacy of the great novelist and essayist James Baldwin looms large—especially Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room and “Stranger in the Village,” an essay on race and history based on Baldwin’s time visiting a Swiss village, both of which dealt with black expatriatism and gay love. But while Pinckney acknowledges his debt to Baldwin and explores those same themes in his work, he also points out what a difference an era makes.
“I can’t say that Baldwin’s fiction relates to Black Deutschland—not even Giovanni’s Room,” Pinckney says. “That steamy novel includes murder. That’s very remote from my book. Jed, the narrator, is thinking of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories all the time. And his being there is kind of a fantasy that comes from his reading those books. And [in Black Deutschland] the works of Eldridge Cleaver and Frantz Fanon pose philosophical questions about what he, as a black gay man, is doing chasing white guys in Germany, of all places. Cleaver and Fanon are the people he doesn’t want to think about. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man was a work of fiction that was very much on my mind in writing this book. It’s a novel about a guy who succeeds in passing for white. The autobiographical voice was a way of getting people inside the experience. Johnson’s book was more of a model than Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, or Giovanni’s Room.”
Pinckney has other literary arrows in his quiver. He’s developed plays in collaboration with director Robert Wilson, including The Forest, Orlando, Time Rocker, and The Old Woman, an adaptation of the Russian writer/dramatist Daniil Kharms’s short story. In 1977, at 23, Pinckney started writing for the New York Review of Books, which he still contributes to. “I got a literary education just reading the back issues and meeting people,” Pinckney says. “It is an extraordinary place to be associated with. But writing criticism is an inhibition. You can get so unconfident about your work, or a bit too demanding. You have to be careful not to shut down the creative side of your brain. Writing a novel is very different from writing about a novel. And being a novelist can make you have sympathies for people’s flaws and intentions.”
Pinckney, a former Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and the recipient of grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim foundations, has taught at Columbia, the New School, and Harvard.
With its myriad historical, racial, cultural, and sexual themes, how would Pinckney teach Black Deutschland? “I would teach it as a book about Berlin,” he says, wistfully recalling his own visits to the city when he was a much younger man. “In the end, it is really a work of nostalgia: a way of remembering a free and youthful time and place.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who contributes often to Publishers Weekly.