Philadelphia Fire by John Edgar Wideman
What hole have I been living in that I have never read the work of John Edgar Wideman until now? I stayed up half the night to finish his 1990 novel Philadelphia Fire, a slim book just shy of 200 pages and so exquisitely and unflinchingly written that it left me exhausted and disturbed.
The story spirals around Cudjoe, who grew up in Philadelphia but has spent the last ten years on the Greek island of Mykonos. In May 1985 he returns to the city on a journalistic mission to find and write about the one child believed to have survived the police bombing of MOVE, a communal organization living in the Osage neighborhood of Philadelphia that left six adults and five children dead.
That’s the situation. But it’s not the story. The story is about the deep structural roots of the seemingly bottomless despair of urban life in Philadelphia, a city that calls itself The City of Brotherly Love. Wideman writes lyrically—sometimes in the patois of various groups, sometimes in the style of rap music, sometimes in the off- kilter logic of dreams. I often read it out loud because it seemed meant to be heard. Sometimes I didn’t know who was was talking or if the scene was actually happening or part of a dream. Occasionally it was the author himself speaking as John Wideman. He writes in first person, second person, third person. There are no quotation marks to indicate speech, nor attributions to indicate the speaker. The book requires you to let go and let the propulsive stream of the narration pull you forcibly under until you think you might drown. For me, reading this book was a physical and emotional experience. Letting go into its inescapable stream was thrilling and unnerving. It’s what I would call a Sacred Text.
I can’t possibly summarize this book, nor can I explain the experience well. But if you let it, Wideman’s unsparing voice will get inside you—in your guts—and you won’t forget it.
Early in the book, Cudjoe is back in Philly and he reflects:
You are in a city. You look up and can’t see the stars and that doesn’t bother you as much as it should. You don’t know what’s wrong but maybe more’s wrong than you want to know.
And that is the absolute truth.
Wideman’s prose is poetic, sometimes starting off with a line from music or a poem you recognize and then veering off, so you understand the departure, as in these few lines:
I am alone in the house. Nothing new. The usual, in fact. Mine eyes have seen nothing more exciting lately than the coming of the kite. Wavering, flickering, silly, ominous, blowing in the wind.
So we don’t get the coming of the Lord, we get the coming of the kite. And the answer, my friend, isn’t blowing in the wind. It’s just a kite. The novel is jam-packed with sentences like this.
He also has an eye for similarly rich details that tell us far more than the simple situation, as when he describes Cudjoe finding cold french fries when he forages in a dumpster for food:
French fries you’ve come to prefer cold, the way you find them mashed and broken in the boxes, salty grease stiff as icing you save under your fingernails and suck later.
Suck later. Criminey.
At one point Cudjoe is remembering his failed staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with a group of black high school students. Wideman’s use of The Tempest throughout the book is brilliant and serves many purposes, one of which is to drive home the point that things don’t change. As in this passage where he refers to Shakespeare as Willy:
Willy was now…Scoped the whole ugly mess about to happen at that day and time which brings us to here, to today. To this very moment in our contemporary world. To the inadequacy of your background, your culture. Its inability, like the inability of a dead sea, to cast up on the beach appropriate role models, creatures whose lives you might imitate. So let’s pretend.
So let’s pretend. What a searing line.
There is so much I could cite, but let me end with this passage of rich, heartbreaking prose from the perspective of John Wideman as a character in the novel. He is talking on the phone to his mentally ill son, a juvenile serving a prison sentence in an adult prison.
I breathe into the space separating me from my son. I hope the silence will be filled for him as it is filled for me by hearing the nothing there is to say at this moment. I hope saying nothing is enough to grip the silence, twist it to our need. Which is holding on, not letting go. My breath in him. This temporary contact fallen into silence, into listening for the other’s silence. Not because it is enough but because it is all we have.
Wideman wrote Philadelphia Fire 33 years ago and his unsparing description of much that is at the heart of America rings as true now as it then, perhaps truer.
Cudjoe never does find the boy who escaped the fire. He doesn’t even try. He’s too overwhelmed by the fact of the city, the fact of the fire, the fact that things never change. Philadelphia Fire got inside me. I couldn’t put it down. Then, when I finished it, I couldn’t go to sleep. Books as deep and troubling as this one are why I advise everyone to toss any book—every book—that doesn’t have you by the throat (or at least enchanted) by page 60—because there are books like Philadelphia Fire that you’ll end up not discovering or not having time left to read.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >