Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Chewing on Wideman's Newest Work

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Chewing on Wideman's Newest Work

Article excerpt

Chewing on Wideman's Newest Work

The Cattle Killing

by John Edgar Wideman

Houghton Mifflin, 1996

New York

212 pages

Soft cover: $22.95

Because The Cattle Killing, John Edgar Wideman's first work of fiction in six years, is about loss -- loss of life, loss of faith, loss of hope, innocence and direction -- it seems only fitting that this review should begin like the book, with a metaphorical slaughtering.

The final determination -- what might have been hoped for at the outset of this novel, what might have become of all its potential and power -- is virtually D.O.A. The narration, though intermittently brilliant, is frequently oblique and clumsily passed from speaker to speaker. Add to this the author's confusion of tense and person, and you have a work of fiction that is consummately frustrating and doomed to self-destruct.

Nevertheless, The Cattle Killing is a chillingly pretty corpse -- a poetic, gutsy, and penetrating piece of prose that, like one of the characters who chimerically passes through it, drowns itself. But before disposing of the carcass, let's examine it.

To say that book is not illuminating, intriguing fiction would be a lie. Set primarily in the Philadelphia area of both the present and eighteenth centuries, this multifaceted tale includes recollections from lives spent in Africa and Europe.

The first voice shared is that of a middle-aged African American, a successful novelist revisiting the Philadelphia ghetto of his youth. While trekking through the still-mean city streets to visit his estranged father and share with him his latest novel, this author's somber reflections center on the sad state of affairs that have caused inner-city Black youth to wreak havoc on each other though one brutal, futile killing after another. This opening coupled with the book's title suggest that whatever comes next, some allusion will be drawn to connect the senselessness of Black-on-Black crime to the carnage of animal butchery:

"Shoot. Chute. Black boys shoot each other. Murder themselves. Shoot. Chute. Panicked cattle funneled down the killing chute, nose pressed into the drippy ass of the one ahead. Shitting and pissing all over themselves because finally, too late, they understand. Understand whose skull is split by the ax at the end of the tunnel."

The torch immediately passes from these contemporary musings to plague-ridden eighteenth-century Philadelphia. There, a young Black itinerant preacher -- a former slave given to fits, fainting spells, and visions -- is reduced to vagrancy after his congregation of freed Africans is decimated by a racist mob. Narrating his tale to an unidentified listener, he speaks of the terrible destruction wrought by the plague -- apparently yellow fever, common to that era -- and of his vain efforts to save victims and souls alike in its wake.

He also relates a haunting story of a woman he encountered during his travels. The woman -- starving, delirious, and near death -- was carrying in her arms a dead White infant. She was the slave of a rich White family which was determined to keep the contagion from their midst. When their youngest child showed signs of the dreaded disease, they cast the infant out of the household, despite the protests of the slave who was herself ejected. …

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