This new collection of John Edgar Wideman’s short stories comes across the pond as one of four handsomely packaged volumes from Canongate. Little known in this country, he towers large in his native States; a MacArthur Genius fellow, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner twice, winner of the Prix Femina Etranger last year, endorsed by Richard Ford and Caryl Phillips…. Old now, he has a lengthy list of publications behind him, and, on this latest evidence, carries a flame of rage against American injustice and prejudice that yet burns magma-hot.
The collection opens with ‘A Prefatory Note’ addressed to an imaginary president (‘perhaps you are a colored woman, which would be an edifying surprise’) and is a couple of pages of composed fury; we are now going to examine the untended wounds of slavery and racism, and it will be disturbing and shocking. ‘History tells as many lies as truths,’ we are told, and then we are taken into the opener, ‘JB & FD’, which imagines a dialogue between John Brown and Frederick Douglass in which they discuss the Harper’s Ferry massacre — ‘it is no simple business to slaughter men with broadswords’ — and, thus, the swamps of blood on which America is built.
In fact, this is a three-way conversation; we are privy, too, to the thoughts of Wideman himself as, from his home in France, he plans the piece: the free indirect style here becomes a torch of awareness seeking a mind to wield it. It is immensely powerful: history is what you live. It is part of your autobiography, and Wideman himself often appears in these pages, his personal traumas given mythical, epochal status: a younger brother serving a life sentence for murder; a nephew executed in his own home; a son who killed a sleeping tent-mate; these are the events around which ‘Maps and Ledgers’ spins.