Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland

Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Jed is black and gay and a disappointment to his achievement oriented parents. Their disappointment is either the cause of or the consequence of Jed’s ongoing struggle with addiction. A lover of words and books, Jed follows in the footsteps of Isherwood and Auden to seek a home, both literary and spiritual, in West Berlin. West Berlin is also home to his cousin Cello, an accomplished pianist, neurotic and unstable, and married into a wealthy German family. Jed receives temporary shelter with a reluctant Cello and her family as he works with the media hungry and controversial architect Rosen-Montag. Jed’s story moves backwards and forwards as Pinckney takes the reader back and forth between Jed’s history and his present. Jed’s aspirations in Berlin include liberating himself from his addictions, finding romance, and establishing himself as a writer, all of which he accomplishes to some degree. His books are his one constant as he moves back and forth across the Atlantic, in and out of Cello’s house, unexpectedly finds love and as unexpectedly loses it, and finds himself in and out of work. Jed’s differences with his Chicago family keep him from finding a home with them, but he never realizes the safe harbor, the embracing sense of belonging, he had hoped to find in Berlin. Jed never fully shakes the weight of his American past and eventually tires from his efforts to do so.  Pinckney vividly describes the Soviet-era West Berlin with its expatriates, remaining threads to its Nazi past, dark welcoming bars, and its dangerous criminal culture. The city’s cold winters and sombre tones reflect and reinforce Jed’s mindset and diminishing sense of self worth. Black Deutschland is ultimately a tragic novel. For Jed, the novel ends where it began. There is no homecoming in sight for him, no return to family, no private life of warm and accepting embraces.  For better or worse, he remains an American abroad in a dark and cheerless post-wall Berlin.

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