Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of Get Down from 29.1

Asali Solomon, Get Down: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. $21.00 hardcover (ISBN 0-374-29942-0), 194 pages.

Reviewed by Chad B. Anderson

Get Down, Asali Solomon’s debut short story collection, humorously yet tenderly explores the African-American middle and upper-class in and near Philadelphia. In five of these seven stories, the principal characters attend predominantly White private schools, navigating the racial politics of lunch rooms and middle school dances, while returning “home” to communities that call them “Oreos” and “Aunty Tom,” or mock the way they “talk proper…like somebody on TV.” Indeed, Get Down probes the entwined, yet frequently conflicting spheres of class and race. In Solomon’s collection, Black parents shake their heads at the Malcolm X Projects, but frown on Black families who move to the suburbs; a wealthy Morehouse student obsesses over the fair skin of his ex-girlfriend; and a pre-teen girl pins a rumor’s origin on the only other Black student in her grade to protect a racially-ambiguous gossiper.

Part of what contributes to the complexity of Get Down is that Solomon not only tackles race and class, but also gender, sexuality, and religion. In “William Is Telling a Story,” the protagonist—sharp-witted, confident, and overtly masculine—becomes speechless when he cannot sexually perform with a white woman in Jamaica, exactly one year after his weight-lifting partner gives him oral sex. In “Save Me,” a Christian camp director with a “dripping Jheri curl” encourages campers to accept Jesus by reminding them that they “could all be killed this very night” and go to Hell; meanwhile, the story’s agnostic narrator dismisses the director’s claims, but remains, years later, “aware of moving closer to death.” Within these stories, Solomon explores homophobia and religious duplicity in the Black community, yet does not confine her characters to a narrow preoccupation with their Blackness, which too often happens with African-American characters in fiction. Solomon’s characters are distinctly individuals; each with hang-ups and neuroses of their own outside of race, and her attention to her characters’ struggles prevents them from becoming “stock” Black characters.

In fact, what is most laudable and captivating about Get Down is Solomon’s precision of character. Solomon’s characters are inimitable, yet pleasantly familiar. In “The Star of the Story,” there is Akousa, the forty-six year old hairdresser who sells marijuana on the side and is nostalgic for her days as a salsa dancer. Akousa’s son, Eduardo, plays the role of funny man around young women to compensate for his obesity, while lusting for his cousin. In “Party on Voorhees,” Vetta sports “an obvious hair weave,” and claims to be Puerto Rican, Irish, Native American—everything but Black. These characters are our aunts, our best friends, our enemies, and our neighbors just around the block—Solomon has created a diverse community through which she explores the tensions between men and women, between parents and children, between “Oreo” and “ghetto,” between the upper and working-classes. Not only is there a constant pushing and pulling between people in this collection, but also within the characters themselves. These characters are in transition—between Black and White, between youth and old age, between love and lust, or simply coping with puberty. Thus, the characters’ “in-between” states thread a sense of restlessness, disillusionment, and desperation through Solomon’s fiction.

In the story, “That Golden Summer,” thirteen-year-old Zuie spends her summer in a low-cut yellow dress, hoping her school crush—a White boy she fantasizes about kissing in the nude—will phone her. He never does. One afternoon, two strange men stop her in front of her house while her family is away and ask her to take a ride with them, before realizing her young age and driving on. Later, she learns that two teenage girls are missing from her neighborhood. When Zuie’s mother berates her for talking to strangers, explaining that “you can’t imagine the things that men do to little girls,” Zuie thinks, “For once, they wanted to do it to me. To me!” Zuie’s loneliness and sexual restlessness are so acute that the advances of probable kidnappers flatter her. In the transition between youth and adulthood, struggling to grasp her sexuality, Zuie stands on the edge of danger, leaving the reader wondering what will be the expense of satiating her growing desires.

Like Zuie, Solomon’s other characters verge on change—often their own emotional, social or psychological undoing. Solomon concludes her stories before her characters cross the threshold of transformation, just as they come to realizations that force them to waver over an emotional edge. With this in mind, the collection’s title becomes particularly resonant. Though it nods at the idea of music and dancing—both of which play a significant role in the stories—the title “Get Down,” actually holds a more ominous meaning. In “Party on Voorhees!,” Sarah, recently transferred from a predominantly White private school to a public school, notices three boys sliding guns into their coats at a party, shouts, “Get down!” and flings herself to the floor. Over the laughing crowd, her companion explains, “Girl, he’s not trying to shoot us.” Sarah, weary of transitioning between two worlds, resolves, “‘I just want to know what the fuck is going on.’”

Like Sarah, the characters of Get Down are waiting for a gunshot—metaphorical or otherwise—that, for better or for worse, will send them over the edge. In this sometimes sad, often funny, and always bittersweet collection, Solomon’s characters struggle to understand and connect with their parents, their friends, their lovers, and most of all, themselves. Get Down’s epigraph is a quote from rap artist Jay-Z: “This can’t be life.” After finishing this collection, however, readers may realize that these stories—the fragile people, the messy relationships, the intimate gestures and fleeting moments—are indeed accurate reflections of life. Solomon’s dialogue and humor are sharp and perfectly timed, her details stunning and precise, and her first literary effort is fresh and satisfying.


Rochelle Spencer said...

I'm so going to check out this story collection. It sounds fab!

Rochelle Spencer said...

As much as I like this review, I don't like the reviewer's comment that the characters in most African American fiction "a narrow preoccupation with their Blackness.” Exactly what African American fiction is the reviewer reading?

I would argue that African American writers do what other writers do--we tell a story, the best way we can. And in order to tell that story, we have to remain true to our characters and the way they perceive reality. Often, blackness is a part of a person's identity (consider how black and white people often had different views of the OJ trial) so I'm not sure how a writer would avoid having race and culture shape a character's worldview.