- A Father's Law
The Richard Wright Centennial provides a special opportunity for readers to reconsider salient aspects of Richard Wright's life (1908-1960) and the many angles from which his fiction and nonfiction can still cast light on fundamental issues of the twenty-first century. The pre-centennial "Reading Richard Wright on the Eve of His 100th Birthday" series (January through December 2007) encouraged residents of Natchez, Mississippi, for example, to read and talk about thirteen of Wright's books. One result was the return of Wright's works to the discursive space of the common reader. Having chosen Uncle Tom's Children (1938) as the book all Mississippians should read during 2008, the "Mississippi Reads" project may have succeeded in putting to rest the question "Who is Richard Wright?" In the midst of centennial activities, however, the pièce de résistance was the publication of Wright's last novel, A Father's Law, in January 2008. Written in the final months of his life, this novel invites us to be complacent, passive, or indifferent. He inspired argument about the values and acts that generate conflict or peace, wretchedness or prosperity. Indeed, in A Father's Law, Wright provides fresh evidence of his talent for spinning tales that catch our conscience. In depicting the tantalizing uncertainties that may obtain in a father's relationship to his son, Wright maps actuality into such reality as novels represent. He demonstrates, in a book that is slightly more reader-friendly than either The Outsider (1953) or The Long Dream (1958), why the confluence of psychology, philosophy, and criminology is a compelling tactic. It works well in fiction that has affinities, say, with Melville's romances or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Unlike some twentieth-century African American novels that focus on detection and kinship—works by Jeffery Renard Allen, Toni Morrison, and David Bradley come to mind—A Father's Law dwells less on the specifics of racialized being-in-the-world and more on ancient prejudices, biological anxieties, and legalized mores that frustrate people's efforts to act morally. Ultimately, readers will have to invoke some theory of justice to bring the unfinished aspects of this novel to aesthetic closure.
Wright uses some elements of the detective story to plot crucial moments in the relationship of Chief of Police Rudolph Turner with his son Tommy, but Wright subverts our expectations. We do not have an average thriller. He is not faithful to that genre as was his friend Chester Himes in his Coffin Ed Johnson-Grave Digger Jones series. A Father's Law denies us the pleasure we might derive from the time-killing fictions we consume between flights at the airport or when the thin offerings of [End Page 519] television bore us. It summons us to ponder what conditions necessitate law, how strict construction of law may debase our humanity, and how a father's guilt and probing may quicken a son's embrace of real or imagined criminality. It invites us to interrogate the minds of two characters seemingly caught in the net of law.
As a police chief in Brentwood Park, an upscale Chicago suburb, Rudolph (Ruddy) Turner relishes his achievement, and he loves "the laws and rules of the community with an abiding and intense passion." Nevertheless, as a father who is Republican, Catholic, and black, he is vulnerable. His badge of authority is a weak shield. He has failed to cultivate bonds of friendship with his nineteen-year-old son Tommy, although he has been responsible in providing him with material goods and educational advantages. He feels guilty about that failure. His efforts to make amends and to know his son better only beget more doubts. Is his son against him and the bourgeois values for which he stands? Is his son a genius and a criminal? Wright's masterful depiction of both Turner's states of mind and Tommy's catalytic antagonism leads us into a vortex where simpler explanations of good, evil, guilt, innocence, obedience and fathomless resentment evade us...