It was strange to read Darryl Pinckney’s new novel while I was in Berlin. To understand why, you’d have to know that Darryl and I had known each back when we were both in college (he was at Columbia, I was at Haverford), then lost track of each other. Or rather, I suppose he lost track of me, but I was able to follow his career as one of the best essayists around, and pretty handy at fiction too. (His previous novel, High Cotton, was published in 1992.) Now, for years I used to tell people that my first visit to Berlin was in November 1989, just as the Wall was opening up. Lately I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have been hallucinating about that — that in fact it was a year later that I arrived in Berlin for the first time. I guess it was my hidden desire to be world-historical, at least in some spectatorial sense. Anyway, whenever that first visit was, it was on a press junket, and among my fellow junketeers was Peter Schjeldahl. I had heard that Darryl was somewhere in Berlin, and somehow it became a running joke between me and Peter that wherever we were going, we were in search of lost Darryl. Of course we never found him because we hadn’t a clue as to where in that spread-out city he might be. Black Deutschland, set in the late ‘80s in what was then West Berlin and culminating in the fall of the Wall (though the narrator’s chronologically hazy yet experientially vivid ruminations deftly interweave misadventures in the German city with reminiscences of his hometown of Chicago), probably gives some clues as to where the author might have been turned up back in the day. But writer and narrator should not be confused; although both are black, gay Americans in Berlin, Jed is a confused nebbish, “in West Berlin to make stupid decisions,” which I doubt Darryl ever was. Yet for all that, Jed does have something of his creator’s shrewdness, and the novel requires a dose of the same of the reader. The prose is at its most characteristic in its gaps, the unspoken parts that are hard to fill in. “As with everything I overheard as a child,” Jed reflects at one point, “I didn’t understand until much later what I managed not to forget of what came my way.” Wrap your head around that and realize you’ll need the same skill set to make the most of this book. “One of the surprises of growing up was finding out what things had been about.” This is not so much a second novel as, on further consideration, a mature reimagining of what a youthful first novel might have been, from the differently disillusioned perspective of three decades later. In my reading, Black Deutschland’s overlay of times and places became intertwined with my own present and past Berlin moments. But all times are somehow or other the wrong time. I may have been late for the fall of the Wall, and late again now in the eyes of Berliners for whom the glory years were the ‘90s, the time following the opening up of the East, but as Jed is informed, “You should have been here in 1977.”
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