Both Eyes Open: Remembering James Alan McPherson

I first discovered James Alan McPherson when I read his masterful novella Elbow Room, in a collection of stories by black authors called The African American West.  I traced it back to his Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, also called Elbow Room (he was the first black author to win the Pulitzer for fiction) and later also acquired his less richly awarded, but no less excellent other collection, Hue and Cry.  He remains my all-time favorite writer of short stories (the other two that round out my list?  Grace Paley and Haruki Murakami).

What immediately struck me about Elbow Room was its protagonists, a young interracial couple in the early 1970s.  Paul is a white, pacifist, conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, from a small rural town, earnest and uncompromising in his values.  Virginia is a self-confident, iconoclastic black woman, a globe-trotting former Peace Corps volunteer.  Reading about them I had an immediate, unfamiliar sense of recognition.  I knew these people.  My own parents were an interracial couple that met in the Peace Corps during that same era.  While they were not in other ways much like the couple in the story, Paul and Virginia could have definitely been part of that close circle of friends they gained in the Corps, the ones I grew up calling “Aunt” and “Uncle.”  The mixed-race child born at the end of the story would have been my exact contemporary.  It was a new experience for me to see my parents’ peers immortalized in print like that, one I’ve never had repeated.  Reading this story made me feel I was learning something about myself.

Lightly dusted with a metafictional framing conceit, the story is brave enough to have an unlikable narrator, a friend of the title couple who comes across as simultaneously pretentious and cynical.  Initially suspicious of Paul, who he sees as unworthy of Virginia, he angers both halves of the couple by telling them their love alone isn’t going to be enough for them to make a successful relationship across the color line, or to protect the child they are bringing into the world.  In the end, however, his tough love approach helps them build a life with “both eyes open” (where each eye represents the perspective from one of the racial groups they come from).

I don’t know anyone who is better, more aware, or more deadpan hilarious on the subject of race in America.  His characters, regardless of their racial origins, are always sympathetically and insightfully delineated, even as their foibles are tweaked, and their conceits deflated.  He’s no less refreshing, however, when he sticks on one side of the race line, as in my other favorite among his many excellent stories, “The Silver Bullet,” about a callow gangbanging wannabe, and his epic fail of an attempt to shake down a local shopowner.

A fantastically humane writer, he’s a must for any human reader.  Go read him!

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