The Good: Poetic narration, Strong interesting characters
The Bad: Often confusing on a plot level
The Basics: A magically narrated novel that will be unlike anything you've put so much effort into. It's amazing how wonderful American English can be when in the hands of an expert!
The next time your computer crashes and you lose the page of work you were writing because you forgot to save it recently, take a moment and put it into perspective. You lost, perhaps a few hours of work, most of which is still fairly fresh in your mind. Then take a moment and consider Ralph Ellison, the genius writer who wrote Invisible Man (click for my review) and who had absolutely no hope of a computer miracle regurgitating the manuscript to his second novel when it went up in flames. Years of work, not so fresh in his mind, lost forever.
Juneteenth is the posthumous reconstruction of what narrative Ralph Ellison was able to save and it's a good thing it was recovered! The novel follows a black Southern minister and a white senator who was once very much connected to him. Reverend Hickman arrives in the segregated section of the Senate to listen to Senator Sunraider, who grew up under the name Bliss in Hickman's charge, just in time to hear the bulk of Sunraider's speech which results in the Senator being shot.
That's the most concrete the plot of Juneteenth gets. After that, the novel remains a dialogue and dream-like reminiscence of the past from Sunraider's hospital bed. The story unfolds in a fevered, jazz-heavy way as Sunraider's pain and delusion intertwines with Hickman's sleepiness and we, the reader, are introduced to the past where Hickman and Bliss were like father and son.
The novel is a profound exploration of the human condition and a lyrical success. There are long sections of fluid poetics, sensual details and vibrant dialogue. The plight of both Sunraider/Bliss and Hickman becomes empathetic and the question of who the real victim in the situation is tossed back and forth expertly by Ralph Ellison.
The shame of it all is that the novel bares an incomplete feeling. According to the editor’s notes, Juneteenth was intended to be a part of a larger work, possibly enough for a trilogy. The novel reads that way with gaps of plot and reasoning.
Not for the literary faint-of-heart, this novel requires effort and attention. It's worth it for the simple beauty of language Ellison employs.
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© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.