||Down On The Street
by Dan Bortolotti
SINCE PUBLISHING his first novel nearly 30 years ago, Austin Clarke has often dealt with the hardships of Blacks in the colonial West Indies and with the similar plight of Black immigrants in Toronto. Clarke`s latest collection, In This City, consists of eight short stories that read like pale reruns of his earlier work.
"Letter of the Law of Black" is a lengthy note from a Barbadian man to his son, who is studying in Canada. The father`s metaphors and anecdotes have surfaced elsewhere in Clarke`s stories; one of his favourite subjects is discrimination at the University of Toronto`s Trinity College:
You said you wrote a paper on the British Constitution, and that the professor gave you a B. You showed your paper to a Canadian friend, and he asked you to let him use it as his own submission....And your Canadian friend got an A for the paper.
This episode is reminiscent of a similar one in Nine Men Who Laughed (Penguin), Clarke`s 1986 book of short fiction. These new stories, in fact, recount numerous events that have been dealt with in earlier writings. To rely on them again here suggests that Clarke has resorted to rehashing old material without adding any new insight.
What is notably absent from these stories is Clarke`s formerly keen ear for dialect and speech. In his past work, both narrative and dialogue were often rendered in the West Indian vernacular. The prose was colourful, humorous, and vibrant. But in stories such as "Initiation," it is hackneyed and lifeless, even parodic:
"Ain`t nothing happenin, brother."
"What`s happenin is happenin!"
"This here`s my main man!"
He introduced me.
"Gimme five, brother!"
Clarke`s characterizations have often relied on language to make them compelling. But the characters in many of these stories remain onedimensional and unexplored, largely because of the author`s failure to convincingly recreate their language.
There are, however, some notable stories in the collection. In "I`m Running for My Life," May is a housemaid who reaches out to her employer, Mr. Moore, whose wife has recently left him. While the attempt at commiseration fails, the two vulnerable characters share an awkward moment of sexual intimacy.
The collection`s longest story, "Sometimes, a Motherless Child," addresses the contentious issue of police racism. BJ is a Black teenager who regularly skips school to visit the racetrack with his Italian friend Marco. The two own a white BMW, which the young men purchased after winning the triactor on a $ 10 bet. (One of the three horses, we are told, paid 50-to-1; just how this translates into enough money for a $30,000 or $40,000 car is unexplained.) As BJ and Marco cruise the streets of Toronto, they are harassed by police who believe that a young Black man driving an expensive car can only be a drug dealer. But the description of BJ`s apparently terrifying ride in the back of a cruiser is vapid:
BJ recognized Division 52 police station. And his heart sank. He had heard about Division 52. Wasn`t it a police officer from 52 who shot a Jamaican, many years ago?
The banality of suggesting that BJ would be intimidated because a Black man was shot by police "many years ago" serves only to weaken an already implausible story.
Unfortunately, similar criticisms can be made about many of the stories in the collection. Given Clarke`s track record, In This City is an unqualified disappointment.