BLACK AND BLUE AND WHITE
The Time of Our Singing By Richard Powers – Farrar Straus Giroux 631 pp.; $ 27
Richard Powers’s riveting and rending saga, on the inescapability of race in the lives of the children of a Jewish scientist and his black Brahmin wife, might have been titled ‘Visible Man’
At a deceptively unobtrusive moment in Richard Powers’s vast novel “The Time of Our Singing,” a classically trained musician named Joseph Strom finds himself working in an Atlantic City piano bar. Noodling his way through one particular evening’s array of pop songs, he slips in a few bars from a blues number. And he softly sings to himself one line: “Oh, what did I do to be so black and blue?”
What choice of lyric is no accident, not from an author as obsessively devoted to historical detail as is Powers. Ralph Ellison opened his landmark novel “Invisible Man” with his unnamed protagonist hunched in a Harlem basement, listening to a record of Louis Armstrong singing those very words. For Ellison, they served as an epigraph, an incantation, for his searing portrait of an America that refused to recognize the humanity of its black citizens.
Powers’s book could be retitled “Visible Man.” For in portraying the interracial marriage of a German Jewish refugee and a black Brahmin, and particularly the lives of their three children, Powers presents a riveting and rending saga about the inescapability of race. Neither affluence nor fair skin nor world-class talent in classical music can deliver the Strom offspring from being categorized as black, with all the hatred and condescension and resilient pride that implies. “They both thought that family should trump race,” Jonah Strom, the eldest and most gifted of the children, says of his parents. “That’s who they were. That’s why they raised us how they did. Noble experiment.”
“The Time of Our Singing” is at once a family novel and a social novel. It requires Powers to traverse a half-century of American history and to risk imagining his way into the experiences and psyches of his numerous black characters. For all of the book’s epic scope – and sometimes Powers forces too many famous events into his narrative – “The Time of Our Singing” achieves the rare feat of being as meticulous as it is monumental. Whether from physics or lieder, details are unerringly precise. Virtually every sentence has been painstakingly chiseled into shape. Surely Powers has written the finest American novel of the year.
The winner of a Macarthur “genius” grant among numerous other prizes, Powers has made his name for grappling with major subjects in seven previous books – corporate power in “Gain,” terrorism in “Plowing the Dark,” artificial intelligence in “Galatea 2.2” Simultaneously, though, he has faced recurrent criticism of writing ideas better than characters. This novel, at least to this reviewer’s taste, should quiet the quibblers. If Powers lacks the ear for dialogue of a Richard Price or Philip Roth, he can nonetheless plumb a soul.
In a more parochial vein, he also has brought his gifts of insight and empathy to the canon of literature about blacks and Jews. And he does so without resorting to any of the usual tropes. David Strom, a physicist who reaches America in the late 1930s, and Delia Daley, the aspiring classical vocalist whom he weds several years later, exist as originals. She is a doctor’s daughter, a college graduate, a believer in high art, altogether part of what W.E.B. DuBois famously called the “Talented Tenth.” Strom is a Yekke, an anti-Zionist comfortably alienated from Judaism and most elements of Jewish identity except for social justice and mandelbrot. They meet, fittingly, at Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter of 1939 – a concert held there as an act of civil-rights protest because the black soprano had been refused permission to perform in Washing-ton’s segregated Constitution Hall. Against not only custom but the laws of most states, Joseph and Delia marry with the vision of being a “sovereign state of their own.”
That state consists of a brownstone on the border of black Harlem and German Jewish Washington Heights, a home where they tutor their children and oversee their musical development. “(F)or pure safety, nothing beat music,” Powers writes. “Music was their lease, their deed, their eminent domain.” Early in childhood, Jonah emerges as a vocal prodigy, his talent deepening as does his voice. His younger brother, Joseph, turns to piano, growing into an almost telepathic accompanist. Only the baby of the family, Ruth, moves outside the shelter of music. Or, more accurately, she is forced away from it when Delia is killed in a furnace explosion.
The world has subtler but no less indelible ways of limiting Jonah and Joseph to the black half of their heritage. On the birth certificate, each has been designated “colored.” A conservatory director breaks apart Jonah’s teenage romance with a white classmate. A few years later, a private instructor who doubles as paramour gushes to him, “I love your people.” When Jonah makes his Manhattan concert debut, the New York Times critic opines that “it is not difficult to imagine Mr. Strom becoming one of the finest Negro recitalists this country has ever produced.” Which leaves Jonah feeling more defeated than any man possibly could have. “My brother had never tried to pass,” Joseph observes, “but it staggered him to know that he couldn’t.”
Not long after, Jonah moves to Europe, much in the manner of such black jazz musicians as Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin. Joseph bounces from Atlantic City to Europe and finally back to America, where he reconnects with Ruth. More than either brother, she has embraced her blackness to the point of militant separatism, marrying a Black Panther, running afoul of the police, and finally creating an Afrocentric school in Oakland. The grandchild of black affluence and elitism, she watches her own son will himself into a gangsta identity of rap music and petty crime.
The putative patriarch, David Strom, ends up perhaps the most atomized figure of all. Having willingly detached himself from Jewishness, whether in a religious or a secular sense, he nonetheless seems to his wife’s family merely another white. The conflict reaches its apex over dinner with Delia’s father just after World War II is ending. William Daley, having learned that David worked on the Manhattan Project, demands to know why the atomic bomb was dropped only on the Japanese, not the Germans. Isn’t the reason, he presses David, because the Germans, no matter their evil, are white?
Before long, they are arguing comparative tragedies. Decades of estrangement ensue. “Horrible things, we said, that night,” David tells Joseph years later, “Terrible things. We played, ‘Who owns pain?’ ‘Who has suffered the greater wrong?’ I told him the Negro had never been killed in the numbers of the Jews. He said they had… He said no killing could be worse than slavery. Centuries of it… But what did this have to do with the two of us – this man and me? Nothing. We were to live now, in the present. But we just didn’t reach there.” Almost to his dying day, David continues to repeat the words he said to William Daley that night: I’m not white, I’m a Jew. Those words are a futile wish. As much as his children, he collides with the either/or absolutism of race in America. The white skin that spares David from anti-Semitism in the novel – the subject rarely comes up – costs him the affinity of his own in-laws.
For all the immense accomplishments in “The Time of Our Singing,” it does have its drawbacks. Powers turns too schematic when he places members of the Strom family at the March on Washington, the Million Man March, the 1965 Watts riot, and the Los Angeles riot of 1992. Similarly, he could have addressed the friction between David Strom and William Daley without having had Joseph aiding in the Manhattan Project. In a broader way, too, David lacks some of the emotional depth that Powers conveys so convincingly with the Strom children and the Daley family. We are told several times that David’s German relatives all perish in the Holocaust. Yet those deaths – and, before them, David’s experience of Hitlerian anti-Semitism – leave him less marked than one would expect. Precisely because he was such a radical universalist in Germany, the descent of the tolerant Weimar Republic into the Third Reich presumably would have taught David a great deal about the inescapable part of Jewishness.
Still, these cavils measure small against the intelligence, ambition, historical sweep and literary sheen of “The Time of Our Singing.” One adores this novel the way Powers tell us David Strom adored Delia Daley, with “a gravity that bordered on mourning.”
Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”