STRIVERS ROW is the third book in Kevin Baker's trilogy of historical novels about New York City. His ambition for these books is enormous, and it is the reader's good fortune that he has fulfilled, and then surpassed, the trilogy's huge potential.
As DREAMLAND, the first book, took readers to Coney Island at the turn of the century, and the second, PARADISE ALLEY, took us to the Lower East Side during the Draft Riots, STRIVERS ROW gives us Harlem just as World War II breaks out. Hustling, hellish, hard-hitting, hipped to the play Harlem --- just the sort of place a young man named Malcolm Little selling ice cream on the Yankee Clipper might plan to visit for an evening's entertainment and wind up never getting back on that train again. Malcolm Little is the cocky, good-time, pre-Islam Malcolm X, whose casual drug use and petty crime start to spiral out of control just as his rage over the condition of black Americans distills into an overwhelming feeling that there must be something more.
Malcolm shares the narrative with Jonah Dove, son of Milton Dove, whom readers might remember from PARADISE ALLEY. Jonah is a minister, pressed into inheriting his father's place in the church despite his doubts and lack of a calling. Milton Dove is a hero to his flock, the legendary founder of the church, and Jonah feels entirely inadequate to his task, a feeling that inevitably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has been secretly indulging his habit of "passing," banking on his light skin to lead people to assume that he is white, after a humiliating incident on the train. Malcolm Little witnessed the minister and his wife, saw how drunk white soldiers treated them, and the two men keep running into each other at crucial moments, both bewildered that "the man from the train" keeps turning up.
Malcolm is unaware that the love of his life, the white singer Miranda, is actually Jonah's equally light-skinned sister. She has turned passing into a way of life, protected by West Indian Archie, Malcolm's mentor in drug dealing and number-running. Kevin Baker makes the two men's frequent encounters seem inevitable: their problems of doubt and self-loathing are so similar and such products of being young black men in white America that they transcend all their differences in character. The crises increase until Harlem is on the brink of a riot and both men are matured and permanently changed by their experiences.
Strivers Row is an actual street in Harlem, the destination of choice for blacks who have found a way to succeed. World War II, however, makes it impossible to live there without remembering the Jews of Europe. They liked to live in the same neighborhoods too, and it only made it easier to round them up and kill them. The characters in STRIVERS ROW question if assimilating with mainstream white culture might be a better choice, and if it might not be self-destructive for black men to fight a white man's war.
Kevin Baker takes great glee in working in the colorful, marvelously funny slang of the period. Readers might find it helpful to peruse the jive glossary in the back of the book before plunging into this unforgettable novel about another of New York City's crucibles.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn (CQuinn9368@yahoo.com) on January 23, 2011