Sunday, February 14, 2010

Native Son by Richard Wright

Holy *&^%$$!!!  

That is my first reaction to this book. I've tried my best to avoid spoilers, but if nothing else, I will say that this is one of the most shocking, horrifying books I've read. I wanted to stop reading it, but I couldn't. I had to find out what was going to happen to Bigger Thomas, who must be one of the most famous train wrecks in literary history, and deservedly so.

A short setup: Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man, is scraping out a miserable existence as a criminal in 1930s Chicago. He lives in a rat-infested one-room tenement with his mother, brother, and sister, and has no job.  On the first day of our novel he is trying to decide whether he should commit an armed robbery, not his first. His mother is pushing him to accept a job to get the family off welfare -- a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, who ironically own the overpriced tenement in which they live. Bigger decides not to commit the robbery and go for the job, so for a few pages it's almost hopeful that he'll break the cycle and lead a better life. Sadly, before he finishes his first day on the new job, Bigger commits a horrible (though possibly accidental) crime that leads to a downward spiral of deceit and crime. Native Son has no chapters, but it's divided into three books: Fear, Flight, and Fate. The first book is largely centered around the development of Bigger's character and his crime. The second book concerns his attempts to escape; and the third is his trial and judgement.

I was really surprised that Bigger was such a horrible character. I won't sugar-coat it, Bigger is really unpleasant. For a protagonist, I could not find one redeeming quality in him.  He is mean, devious, and completely self-centered. Apparently author Richard Wright didn't want to create someone who people could find sympathetic and cry over, then forget about. Believe me, you will not forget about Bigger. But Wright turns the tables and uses Bigger to make some really important and uncomfortable points about racism and race relations. 

This book has been on my to-read list since 2005, when I decided to read the entire Modern Library list of the top 100 novels.  (This brings me to 45 completed on that list, 55 on the Radcliffe Top 100).  There's a lot of debate about what makes something a "best" novel, but I have finally decided that these two lists aren't necessarily the best novels of the 20th century, but really the most important, the most groundbreaking, because most of them have achieved something noteworthy that hadn't been done before. Though I can't really say I liked this novel, I can respect and appreciate its importance in the literary canon. In a way I'm sorry I took so long to read it, but I'm glad that I waited since I was able to discuss it with real people in our February book group meeting. My good friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf is also a member, and you can read her thoughts about Native Son here.

This book is not for everyone -- not for the squeamish or easily offended. It's one of those riveting stories that are just horrible, but the writing is so good I wanted to finish it. I'll admit, the book is very intense and several times I had to put the book down and step away. I did read this book in just a few days, so despite its length (430 pages of text in my paperback edition, plus lots of extra stuff) it's a really fast read.

I can't say it's one of the best books I've ever read -- the third book in particular has some very long speeches in which Wright gets up on his literary soapbox, and I'll admit I skimmed parts of this -- but certainly, it is a book that I will never forget.  I have no desire to read it again, but I'm glad I read it.


  1. I've read 24 of the ML list (not the reader's choice list) and started but abandoned 2 (Brideshead and Tobacco Road). I don't think I could commit to read the entire list, though, because there are too many James Joyce books on there! :D

    I'm glad we got to discuss this with our book group. It was such an interesting discussion and such a confusing book for me. Wright did an excellent job with what he meant to do...

  2. Oh and I checked out that Radcliff list and apparently have read 36 on there including a couple abandoned books.

  3. I know I'll never finish the entire list -- Joyce and Faulkner, for starters, plus Tropic of Cancer and A Clockwork Orange. No, thank you. But there are a lot of books that pleasantly surprised me, so I'll keep trying them. It may take me 20 years but I'm going to attempt most of them.

    Which do you recommend from the list?

  4. You've probably read all the ones I've read. I'd recommend Lolita but I thought I remembered you saying you didn't like Nabokov...

  5. I feel like such a bad Chicagoan because I've never read this. It sounds like an important book, even if the subject matter is difficult. It sounds like something that might be best read in a group or with another person, actually, because otherwise I may be tempted to set it down.

  6. I read about this one last month in a cultural history of the Great Depression, and it sounded like a book I absolutely needed to read even though it would probably drive me crazy.

    Your review totally confirmed that, and while I'm jealous you had a r/l book club to talk about it with, I'll just e-mail you and Amanda once I've read it. ;)

  7. Maire -- I am a bad former Chicagoan (10 years) because I dislike the works of Saul Bellow. But I agree that the book group kept me reading it. Otherwise I probably would have put it off forever. I still haven't gotten through The Jungle, one of our selections fromlast year.

    Eva -- please email me or comment when you have finished. I would love to hear your perspective when you've read it.

  8. ugh. sounds like a horrible book that I should read some time. Although I don't think I'm looking forward to it, I do think it's one I should read...

  9. I respect your strength in finishing this one! I tried many years ago to read Native Son and it made me, literally, physically ill from the horrifying claustrophobia of it all and I just couldn't manage it. I respect your toughness - props!

  10. Have you read American Tragedy? I find Bigger and the main character in Dreiser's book similar.

    I just did a quick google on Native Son and I learned Dreiser and Wright both wrote naturalistic fiction. Makes sense why I connect the stories. Drieser was not required reading. Don't know how I picked him up.

    Native Son is one of those books where I find criticism is very useful.

    In many high schools, including mine, Native Son or Black Boy was required.

    Books like NS was one of my earliest lessons that literature is sometimes meant to provoke, disturb and challenge us.

    I wish I could have heard the comments during your discussion.

    Thanks for the review.

  11. Rebecca & Colleen -- yeah, this was tough. I am glad I've read it, but every time I think about it I feel the overwhelming urge for a shower. It's not just because Bigger was so horrible, but also because of the shocking racism of the time -- Wright created fictional newspaper headlines and articles about the crime that were strongly inspired by an actual case. Pretty disgusting.

    Susan - I did read an American Tragedy, last summer, and I found it tragically long -- it started out great and then dragged on forever. I did think about it when I was reading Native Son -- and I meant to bring it up at book group but we had so much to talk about I forgot.

    And I'm sure Native Son has been banned or challenged as high school reading -- it's pretty intense. Wish I'd read it in college, though.

  12. Native Son was a hard book -- as was and Studs Lonigan), the other two monuments to American naturalism. Heavy sledding. But, like you said, important.

    I found your blog when looking for bloggers reading the books on the Modern Library list. This list inspired me to start my Rose City Reader blog, so I like finding book bloggers with similar interests.

    Good luck with the list! There are 121 books on it, by the way, if you count all the trilogies, quartets, and the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, which you should -- it was my favorite.

    If you would like me to link to your ML progress report on my main Modern Library post, please leave a comment with the link and I will add it to the list.