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By Darryl Pinckney
Farrah, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
As regular readers know, I have mixed feelings about slow-moving, heavily character-based stories; but when they're done well, in a way that I can easily engage in, like is the case with Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland, such novels tend to be some of my favorite reading experiences of the entire year. A deliberately rambling tale that's presented much like how a person might tell a story over beers at a bar -- that is, in no particular order, with certain mentions triggering digressions from completely different periods of their lives -- this is the story of a young gay black intellectual in the 1980s, raised on Chicago's southside but who has a Romantic-with-a-capital-R fascination with pre-unified Berlin, basically because of falling in love with Christopher Isherwood's old '50s tales about debauchery there and mistakenly thinking that he's going to be able to find the same thing.
Although never laid out explicitly, we get the sense over the course of this book that our hero Jed spent a whole series of summers in his youth traveling back and forth between the two cities, first as a genteel alcoholic (his drug of choice is white wine) who engages in a whole series of sloppily homosexual affairs; but then at a certain point he decides to dry up, at which point he accidentally falls in with a controversial architect from IIT who then pays him to travel to Berlin regularly, now sober and with his job being essentially to write articles that rationalize and justify this architect's sometimes hated plan to build a new "anti-Bauhaus" housing project in that city, where Jed is now forming a new relationship with a once estranged cousin who is a classical pianist in Germany and has her own complicated history with being a "black nerd role model."
The point of this book, though, is not to follow along with this timeline, but rather to sink luxuriously into the complex characterization and inner thoughts of all these people, and to lounge like a fellow intellectual in their high-minded conversations about art, love, post-war Europe and American urban blight. Granted, that's a slow and long process that will drive some people crazy -- for example, I usually burn through two to three books every week as a CCLaP reviewer, yet this 300-page book took me nearly a month of daily reading to get through, just because the story is so dense and rich and needs to be sipped rather than gulped. If you have the patience and inclination, though, you'll find an immensely rewarding tale that utterly transports you to a time and place most of us would never find ourselves in our own lives, giving us a look at brainy people of color as they flit and flirt their way as expats among a world of European artistes who treat them like sexy space aliens. For those like me who think they can get into a story like this, it comes strongly recommended, and will likely be making our best-of-the-year lists at the end of 2016.
Out of 10: 9.7