Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tiel Lundy, review: "A Man You Could Love"

Tiel Lundy
University of Colorado, Denver

John Callahan, A Man You Could Love. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007.

John Callahan’s first novel, A Man You Could Love, is nothing if not ambitious. At over four hundred and fifty pages, the novel is a compendium of the nation’s political history, racial and partisan, from the late nineteen-sixties to the infamous 2000 presidential election debacle. Callahan’s fictive reflections upon the events of the intervening years—the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of John and Bobby Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold and Gulf Wars—suggest his own sense of historical belonging to our nation’s turbulent twentieth century. In many ways, Callahan is participating in the long-established American literary tradition of exploring the yoked nature of personal and national identities—think Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, or Ralph Ellison—and his book is the product of many years of ruminating upon the subject.

With meditations that are plainly heartfelt, it’s clear that A Man You Could Love satisfies for its author a mission of real personal as well as civic importance. The very earnestness of voice that makes one think Callahan is a genuinely decent and deeply moral person—indeed, a man you could quite like—is the same thing, however, that renders the work (at times) somewhat didactic. Which perhaps should come as no surprise since Callahan has spent his professional life in the role of educator and scholar. Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, John Callahan is best known for his contributions to African American literary scholarship, most specifically his work on Ralph Ellison. Close personal friend and executor of Ellison’s estate, Callahan finished the task that bedeviled Ellison himself for some forty years, publishing in 1999 Ellison’s unfinished novel Juneteenth. It is Ellison’s influence that is most keenly felt in A Man You Could Love; his opus Invisible Man is one of the best examples from the twentieth century of a novel’s ability to render the social, racial, and psychological complexities of modern life in America.

Like his friend and colleague, Callahan betrays a penchant for storytelling, something, he says, that can “advance a common eclectic democratic identity.” He begins In the African-American Grain, his 1988 collection of essays demonstrably influenced by William Carlos Williams, with a longish personal account of the events that shaped his political sensibilities, in particular his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Clearly, Callahan feels the need to explain his motivations for and authority to declaring kinship with African Americans, perhaps not unjustifiably as he is a white Irish American Catholic. With a series of anecdotes about the ways in which the histories of African Americans and Irish Americans have been linked, Callahan suggests a complicated and taut, if essential, relationship between the two ethnicities.

Race is a central theme in A Man You Could Love, and protagonist Mick Whelan, the Irish American politician from Oregon, is tied to the African American community both by chance and choice. Having parted with his girlfriend Rebecca after a romantic weekend retreat in the mountains, Mick finds himself caught in the apocalyptic eruption of a volcano. In his frantic efforts to drive back and save Rebecca, he practically runs over Jonas Fitch and his son, who, stranded and about to become the victims of the volcano’s smoke and ash, jump into the car. Commanding Mick to “turn that sorry-ass car around and drive like there’s no tomorrow,” Jonas functions as Mick’s navigator and savior. In what is the beginning of a long friendship, Whelan is made an honorary member of the Ship of Zion A.M.E. Church where Fitch serves as Deacon. Praising Whelan for having saved his life and his son’s, Fitch says that “the Lord sent a man to lift his servant Jonas out of the belly of the fire. That man is named for the archangel Michael and the whale that spouted Jonah out onto dry land.” Callahan the scholar understands the vital role of orality to African American culture, as evidenced by the novel’s use of black vernacular, call and response, the blues and gospel music. In these close relationships between black and white characters, the writer illustrates what Ellison called the “true interrelatedness of blackness and whiteness.”

Where Callahan runs into trouble, though, is in his representations of black women, who figure in the novel as exotically beautiful “sisters” but who exert no real influence beyond their physical charms—a curious problem for a book about power and influence. If African American women are excluded from the ranks of power brokers, they are not alone; women in general remain largely irrelevant in the novel. Admittedly, Callahan does draw female characters who wield a certain amount of leverage within the walls of the Capitol. But A Man You Could Love suggests that much of lawmaking remains sequestered in the smoky corners of the almost exclusively male-patroned D.C. restaurants where the real job of ruling a nation takes place over martinis and little cigars.

If anything, it is this, the novel’s emphasis on the homosocial dimension of politics that is most interesting. There is a kind of intimacy between Whelan and his friend and political strategist Gabe Bontempo, as there is among many of the novel’s male characters, an intimacy entirely absent in the male-female relationships. Whelan and Bontempo’s friendship takes on a destructive quality, though, as Bontempo, oblivious to his wife’s growing alienation as he spends countless days on the campaign trail, fails to stop the disintegration of his marriage and family. Beginning the novel with an epigraph from Invisible Man—“and could politics ever be an expression of love?”—Callahan clearly wants to explore the obsessive, demanding, even aphrodisiacal nature of politics. (He himself dabbled in politics, running a valiant but failed campaign for the Oregon House Democratic primary in 1970). By contrast, the relationships between men and women are subordinated to the political realm. In one scene recalling Rebecca’s words of encouragement for Mick, the language of politics trounces any hint of romance:

"Then . . . [you said] that if the FBI violated the constitutional rights of the Panthers or anyone else while you were in Congress, you’d introduce a bill to cut off appropriations. You knew it wouldn’t pass, but you’d keep pushing until you got the president’s attention. You said you couldn’t stop FBI harassment by yourself, but you’d try under the authority Congress had under the Constitution. I was so proud of you."

Callahan shows little interest in exploring heterosexual love—fair enough, as this is a book about politics, not marriage. In one telling passage, Bontempo, who also serves as the book’s narrator, confesses, “I could not separate [Whelan’s] story from the politics that lay ahead.” This, it seems, is both the novel’s strength and weakness, for Callahan struggles to balance story and politics, often sacrificing craft to ideology. In one of many scenes in which Whelan addresses Congress, he delivers the following speech:

"A few mornings ago, uncertain what I would say, I walked the mall—behind me, the Capitol, which Lincoln insisted go up during the Civil War as proof that the Union would not perish; ahead, the Washington Monument, ramrod straight and upstanding—like the man who was his country’s surveyor as well as its father; and in the distance, Lincoln’s Memorial, that true resting place of the American spirit. For the first time, I was struck by how the spaces in between—the grass, the paths, the reflecting pool—stand for the open space in the American mind."

These frequent rhetorical posturings may (for some readers) make the book feel too much like a civics lesson. Indeed, one begins to suspect that, like Bontempo, Callahan cannot separate his own story from the story he tells. The author could have trusted his readers to do more of their own work, to fill-in the gaps, which may have granted a more provocative indeterminacy to the book’s overall structure.

The events of the novel are tragic, as are most of the background historical moments, and yet A Man You Could Love is not a tragedy. Rather, Callahan maintains an optimism that feels strangely anachronistic in an American political scene defined in recent years by the travesties of the Bush Administration. Callahan doesn’t do irony, something that postmodern readers have come to demand. Again, though, the ideological clarity that over-determines the novel’s sense of craft and audience is the same thing that makes its author admirable, for his book is one of those “literary acts of citizenship” he speaks of, that, successful or not, demands the possibility of a better America.

Tiel Lundy is Instructor of Literature and Film at the University of Colorado at Denver. She specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and film studies.

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