This book really took me by surprise. The last James Baldwin book I read was Go Tell it on the Mountain and that was over 20 years ago. I just remember liking parts of it and other parts were a bit slow. If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of Fonny and Clementine alias Tish. They are deeply in love and are planning to move into a loft flat in Greenwich Village together. It’s the 1970s and relations between blacks and whites are tense. They finally find a loft apartment where they can live together and Fonny can do his passion sculpting. When one day the police come and take Fonny away because he’s being accused of rape. From there, the story follows the trials and tribulations of Fonny trying to stay positive that he will get out of jail and Fonny and Tish’s families trying to earn enough money to pay the lawyer’s fees and most of all trying to support each other during this difficult time.
What struck me about If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin’s thirteenth novel, was that it was direct, realistic, and the impressive in-your-face style of writing. Baldwin was telling it like it was, as always. If you’re not ready to listen then abstain. The language is very 1970s but I found it somehow refreshing. The story is fiction but it rings as a true one. Baldwin even adds sexually explicit scenes to accentuate the reality of the story even more. The families seem to represent two types of families in the black community. There was Tisha’s family that remains unified and supporting each other no matter what. They will brave fire and walk to the ends of the Earth for each other. On the other hand, Fonny’s family is superficial, judgmental, and unreliable. His mother claims to be a christian although she has the most unchristian attitude and believes that she is better than everybody else. His sisters are frivolous and negligent on their quests to find husbands and picking from the most ineligible types. They don’t seem to care very much about their brother and that goes even before he gets thrown into jail. Sonny’s father Frank loves him very much but as the story progresses he proves to be unable to keep up the strength needed to help Fonny get out of jail.
Baldwin put a lot of emphasis on character development and less on the story, but that wasn’t a problem at all since the characters are described and put into situations so that we can understand them better. Even so, the novel reads with ease and the dated expressions conjure up some humour. My favourite character is Ernestine, Tish’s sister, because of her strong personality and her frankness. She is a really self-sufficient, strong character who really knows what to do and say.
I really enjoyed reading If Beale Street Could Talk because this was one of the many important classic works of African-American literature. James Baldwin was a master. He always managed to tell the most realistic stories about African-Americans and their difficulty to survive and to progress. If you haven’t had the pleasure of picking up any of his work, I highly recommend If Beale Street Could Talk. It contains themes of racism, love, and solidarity among the disinherited that are fighting for their rights the best they can with the little they’ve got. These themes are very universal but are all treated in intricate woven threads around the unfair imprisonment of Fonny. It is a bittersweet tale and the quote on the back of the Vintage International edition is spot on, “A moving, painful story, so vividly human and so obviously based on reality that it strikes us as timeless.” – Joyce Carol Oates.