Review by New York Times Review
John Edgar Wideman's new story collection begins like this: "Dear Mr. President, "I send this note along with some stories I've written, and hope you will find time in your demanding schedule to read both note and stories. The stories should speak for themselves. The note is a plea, Mr. President. Please eradicate slavery." Later in the same piece: "My guess is that slavery won't disappear until only two human beings are left alive, neither one strong enough to enslave the other. Anyway, please read on and enjoy the stories that follow. ... No obligation to free a single slave of any color." With this blunt, furious opening, Wideman puts us on notice: Wherever we're going with him, we're going to engage with America's unhealed wounds of slavery and racism - and it's not going to be comfortable or easy. Wideman's stories range widely over experiences from slavery to the present day. Among the tales of the past: "JB & FD," an imagined dialogue between John Brown and Frederick Douglass, and "Nat flirner Confesses," a disturbing voyage into the rebellion leader's mind. Among the present-day tales, two of the most striking are "Williamsburg Bridge," the musings of a man considering suicide, and "Maps and Ledgers," which touches on the discomfort of an AfricanAmerican writing teacher in a largely white institution. All are illumined by a searching intelligence and a willingness to test the boundaries of the short story form. "American Histories" is a hard book to categorize. Part of the difficulty is that Wideman often uses the facts of his life in a way that makes readers question what is true and what isn't. I usually avoid considering how a writer's personal life relates to his or her fiction, but with a number of the stories, most notably "Maps and Ledgers," it's hard not to do. The narrator refers to his youngest brother and his son both having committed murder. Readers who have followed Wideman's career know that both of those things are, sadly, true. In 1986, at the age of 16, Wideman's son Jacob killed another teenager; he was only recently paroled. And Wideman's brother Robert is serving a life sentence in prison for murder, a situation Wideman grappled with in his tough-minded memoir "Brothers and Keepers." Is including this information in the story a challenge to get the reader to set aside what he knows of the author's history? Or is it an invitation to consider what the horrors and triumphs of real life bring to bear on one's fiction? THE READER IS encouraged to step out of the text in other ways as well. In the heart of "Willamsburg Bridge," there is a reference to AlexReisner.com/NYC2. As would another other soul living in 2018,1 put the book down immediately and went to the website, where the young man who owns it describes at length a suicide he saw on the bridge. Reisner, the viewer, is white, the fictional suicide a young black man, the contrast no doubt deliberate. These invitations to leave the text behind (for this is not the only one) seem to be part of Wideman's method of holding readers at bay, keeping them always guessing, always a little uncertain. I found the digressiveness of this collection frustrating at times - it's not a likable or easily accessible book. But in this case, that's not a criticism. "American Histories" is not here to be liked. It's here to challenge you. And that it does. Wideman often uses the facts of his life in a way that makes readers question what is true and what isn't. MARTH A SOUTHGATE is the author of four novels, most recently "The Taste of Salt."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 15, 2018]
Review by Booklist Review
*Starred Review* In his 50-year literary career, Wideman (Writing to Save a Life, 2016) has tackled race, family, and art from nearly every imaginable angle. As in much of his previous work, his latest collection blurs the line between fact and fiction, form and function, and history and autobiography. Some stories test the relationship between a storyteller and his characters, while in others historical figures narrate. In JB & FD, a writer painstakingly imagines the interactions between abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglass. In Nat Turner Confesses, an African American privileged with grad school training dives into the mind of the eponymous rebel-slave. Maps and Ledgers looks at complicated family histories. When a father, on his first day in a new teaching position, kills an old friend, Aunt C rescues him, and that's when the family's troubles really begin. Williamsburg Bridge is a darkly comic look at death and inspiration as a suicidal man sitting on the bridge attempts to explain what led him there. The book fittingly closes with Collage, a paean to artists Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose styles Wideman emulates to explore intuition and composition. Wideman's shape-shifting, lyrical narratives offer mesmerizing and challenging perspectives on the creative process and the black experience, decisively affirming his stature as a major voice in American literature.--Fullmer, Jonathan Copyright 2018 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Wideman, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fatheralong, boldly subverts notions of what a short story can be in this wonderful collection. In "Williamsburg Bridge" a man plans his suicide from the bridge while considering the lives and deaths of others below him, as well as what has brought him to this point. "Writing Teacher" explores the obligations and feelings of a black professor toward his white fiction writing student after she submits a story about the plights of a young black woman. "JB & FD" imagines a conversation over many years between John Brown and Frederick Douglass; "Nat Turner Confesses" brings the young Nat to life as a boy determined to change his fate. In "Yellow Sea," a man watches the films Precious and The Yellow Sea and analyzes the characters and their brutal struggles on screen and brings them into his own world, offering advice and empathy. Each story feels new, challenging, and exhilarating, beguilingly combining American history with personal history. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Throughout his decorated literary career, Wideman (Sent for You Yesterday; Philadelphia Fire) has compiled an extended meditation on how we are able to heal by transmuting personal and historical facts into constant reimagining. This sprawling collection of short stories is an unapologetic resurrection of those facts in today's political climate, with Wideman's introduction addressed directly to the president of the United States. The author returns to the streets of Pittsburgh and his childhood memories, envisions a conversation between John Brown and Frederick Douglass, and probes the popular culture we use to escape, forget, and grieve. Each story is a parallel universe just out of reach, with the whole assembled like shards of broken glass. Interspersing pieces that include microfictions like "Bunny and Glide" and prose poems like "Snow," Wideman elucidates loneliness and helplessness with lyrical economy and rhythmic sadness. VERDICT A deeply personal collection of stories illuminating the thinning and cyclical threads of history that both sustain us and tear us apart. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 9/25/17.]-Joshua Finnell, Colgate Univ., Hamilton, NY © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
In 1993, Wideman published a book called All Stories Are True, and this new collection represents both an affirmation of and a challenge to that claim.The book's provocations begin with "A Prefatory Note" addressed to an unnamed president of the United States, asking when, or if, slavery will ever end, even with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. ("Slavery as a social condition," the letter states, "did not disappear.Skin color continues to separate some of us into a category as unforgiving as the label property stamped on a person." The next story, "JB FD," reimagines, often to startlingly persuasive effect, the real-life transactions between the 19th-century black author/activist Frederick Douglass and the militant white abolitionist John Brown, whose bloody scourge against slavery climaxed with the deadly 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The voices of the two men, in correspondence and conversation, seem to blend in with each other even as they argue over tactics and ideology. Later in the book, Wideman (Writing to Save a Life, 2016, etc.) makes a bolder, riskier move by taking his own crack at the ill-fated insurgent slave Nat Turner's confessions. In between, there are stories, or "stories," such as "Maps and Ledgers," in which the narrator recalls how his father's murderous act upended his family's perilous sense of harmony; "My Dead," Wideman's grim, haunting tally of "a bad ten months" during which he lost "a brother [and] a niece," who joined other dead relatives from whom they received names and legacies; and "Williamsburg Bridge," a digressive, quasi-surreal tour de force peering into the crowded mind of a man who's both hesitant about and intent on diving into the East River. You can also find tips on storytelling ("Writing Teacher") and even a review of the 2010 South Korean movie thriller The Yellow Sea that morphs into a meditation on the 2009 film Precious. You might, in other words, find this collection to be all over the place, and yet all of these pieces are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention, and a dry sensibility whose owner has for decades wrestled with what he describes as "the puzzle of how and why and where and who we come from."Wideman's recent work strides into the gap between fiction and nonfiction as a means of disclosing hard, painful, and necessary truths. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.