Native Son

by Richard Wright

This one was assigned reading in high school. When I saw it come up on the list, I instantly was able to recall the protagonist's name—"Bigger"—and the major event that sets the tale in motion—a murder (don't worry, not a spoiler since it's how the book starts not ends). Then as I continued to read, it occurred to me that I didn't remember the ending...leading me to believe that I might have given up on it in high school & never finished. But! Not to worry, Mrs. Bresnick, I finally came to a line very close to the end of the book that I had remembered verbatim! It was something that had really spoken to me when I was a teenager: I probably tacked it up on a corkboard in my bedroom, or wrote it on the outside of my binder, or graffiti'd it on the inside of my locker door, (although it's overwrought & thus a little embarrassing to bother repeating here). That was enough to prove to myself that I had indeed read the entire book thirty years ago. So here we go again.

The second time around, I think I both enjoyed the reading of Native Son better yet am more critical of it, which makes sense. The thing that stands out for me this time is how taut the writing is! This is a 400-page novel, yet the most climactic scenes play out as single pagers! That must be the thing that makes Native Son one of the greatest page turners ever: The reader becomes more than willing to burn through a couple hundred pages just to connect the dots to the next tautly drawn climax. This book even got into my dreams...probably because I couldn't put it down...I was playing one of the Daltons, but some of the characters & facts were confused. Anyway, all that—before I get into the criticism—is to say that I could recommend this book to anyone! It's simply a great read. I half wonder if it was an early influence on my current (and abashed) addiction to crime documentaries.

As an adult, and thirty more years on in a world which itself is thirty more years on, a few things don't hit the mark for me. Act one, scene one of Native Son plays as an allegory in which Bigger kills a rat in his family's tenement room. But here Richard Wright has drawn a rat that seemingly would rather die on its feet than live on its knees. This doesn't ring true of my own experience with rats, who usually just want to get away (not cop a defiant attitude). So the start of the book itself comes across as too heavy handed. I feel corroborated when I read in Richard Wright's own introduction to my paperback: "If a scene seemed improbable to me, I'd not tear it up, but ask myself: 'Does it reveal enough of what I feel to stand in spite of its unreality?' If I felt it did, it stood."

Along the same lines as animals, whites played as something of caricatures to me—which is probably also accounted for by the author's selfadmitted adherence to feeling tone as guiding principle. I thought it unusual that every single white character held a polarized view of race. In these pages you can only find the ultraliberal and the staunch conservative depicted. Far more the former than the latter, but no one in between, and certainly not a single character whose feelings shift organically with the facts of the plot. There are also strata of hierarchy in this book. You've got white people of varying class, with rich white, working class white, and service white all portrayed here. Each white person in the story—in their own way—all demean black men, who all demean black women, and then the lowest of the low are animals. It's interesting then that just as the main character (black) upsets the 'natural' order of this world, it is a cat (animal) that plays a role in betraying him! For that scene alone, though there are many others, you should feel the tug to read this book.