This second, for me, of Baldwin's novels (the first being GIOVANNI'S ROOM) seems to affirm those reasons Baldwin's nonfiction is often more familiar to us than his imaginative storytelling (or his poetry, Poet being another hat he wore with inimitable style). This novel too is brilliant, yet flawed. I say this as a reader, not as a writer: as a writer, what could one possibly feel other than admiration for the blazing eloquence, the sheer eerie intelligence, of that authorial voice?
We watch (with what palpable readerly helplessness) as troubled jazz drummer Rufus Scott has a tragic dalliance with Leona, a white woman from the South and a fellow lost soul, and then follow his sister Ida, his friend the struggling novelist Vivaldo, the more successful older writer Richard, Richard's wife Cass, the apparently bisexual actor Eric, and Eric's lover Yves, as they support or disrupt one another's artistic, social, and sexual routines.
Baldwin was at heart a journalistic philosopher, which may explain why these characters at times seem embodiments of concept, acting as ideological chess pieces. They embody insights, understandings of tension, around race and sexuality. Amidst such sensory renderings of Harlem and Greenwich Village bohemia, the reader becomes aware of that omnipotent hand, with its formidable consideration and skill, maneuvering these pieces in the service of the larger intellectual design. This is particularly true of Rufus, around whose tragedy this narrative unfolds. Wikipedia notes: "Baldwin called Rufus "the black corpse floating in the national psyche", as well as a Christ figure ... Baldwin later said that he developed the character of Rufus to complement and explain Ida."
This makes sense, as Rufus's tragedy feels more contrived than organic. Here, as so often, I reference Toni Morrison, not just as a favorite living novelist, but one managing ideological arrangements to impressively organic effect. In Morrison, when that strong sense of ideological design emerges, it seems to do so through selection, rather than through determined fabrication. One feels Morrison's characters have their own eccentric life force, whose gestures are selectively presented for the thematic purpose, versus manufactured. Paradoxically, the sense of artistic control comes through in Morrison's grasp of plot, whereas in Baldwin, one is not always entirely sure of a coherent intent in the moment to moment progression of the narrative.
This is all nitpicking. Baldwin's righteous yet vulnerable angst all but physically ignites the pages of ANOTHER COUNTRY, which is as potent and immersive a time capsule as any work of literature, and completely unsparing in its examination of people's self-serving behaviors. When Baldwin does contrive, it's because he wants to make fiction do what he always did best: tell us unvarnished truth, no matter the cost.