- Three Days Before the Shooting. . .
My feelings about Ralph Ellison’s new-old book are, to say the least, ambivalent. I suspect its precious few reviewers have fawned over it largely because the wait was so preposterously long, and because it is, after all, Ralph Ellison’s only second novel. Unlike Juneteenth, a travesty designed to make this rambling text more reader-friendly, the incomplete manuscript has been published in its entirety—under a new title, somewhat more respecting of Ellison’s true intention. The title is taken from the opening paragraph of his manuscript, which was over forty years in the making and, according to one interviewer, so thick that the question was posed to Ellison whether the book would appear in several volumes. In my honest assessment, it should have.
Alas, it didn’t, and now we simply have to make do with what’s here: a stupendous behemoth, as brilliant in its intent as it is disastrous in its execution. The overall effect is one of a massive, self-created jigsaw puzzle; however, its creator seems to have made it so vastly intricate that he had long since forgotten exactly where most pieces should fit. We come to this book with the same confusion the author must have left it, unfortunately—overwhelmed by the sheer number of puzzle pieces, many of which appear to have been haphazardly fitted together.
There are two major pieces: Book One and Book Two, which at least can be read consecutively. (A third, “Bliss’s Birth,” only adds to the confusion.) Book One is the more readable of the two, in my assessment. Wellborn McIntyre, an aging white reporter, gives us a first person account of the “shooting” upon which this entire novel is centered—an account which, upon further scrutiny, functions—or attempts to function—as a meditation on the growing insanity of American life. Adam Sunraider, an outrageously foul-mouthed, racist (and decidedly non-Southern) U. S. Senator, has finished one of his bombastic screeds when he is shot several times. McIntyre has been contemplating this American insanity when yet more examples of such insanity manifest itself in the shooting’s grotesque aftermath: an “old Negro” suddenly swoons over the fallen racist senator and begins praying loudly amidst the chaos, as if the “Rabbi of Minsk . . . [broke] into loud lamentations over the death of Adolph Hitler” (15). Confusion, useless speculation and shock reign among the congressmen, especially when it is later learned that the dying Senator has specifically demanded that this “old Negro” be called to his bedside. Suddenly, to the flummoxed McIntyre, “things had ricocheted from the potentially tragic to the blatantly bizarre” (21).
By chapter three, McIntyre’s labored narration begins to lose steam. He is irritated by a patronizing letter from Monsieur Vannec, a French colleague, about the queer nature of American politics and finds himself jostled by legislators, lobbyists and other reporters in trading tidbits about the Senator’s past scandals. McIntyre’s confusion about America strikes me as unconvincing, and appears as a mere excuse for unnecessary narrative detours: a recollection of a brilliant, unstable young man whose mind snaps during a trip to U. S. Congress; the infamous “Cadillac Flambé” episode, which appears as chapter four; a noisy gathering in Rome, of all places, and an equally noisy gathering at a Washington club, in which McIntyre has a heated discussion with his colorful colleague McGowan, a pathological bigot who insists that “everything the nigra does is political” (53; original emphasis), even down to his food. When “the nigra” reads Dostoyevsky rather than the Bible and orders lobster rather than chitlins, he becomes trouble; when he goes from moonshine to Scotch, [End Page 723] from Cadillacs to Jaguars, ditto—“you have a bad nigra on your hands” (57). These satirical forays into McGowan’s twisted mind drag on for over ten large, fine-typed, tedious pages.
We later find McIntyre in the hospital, where he discovers the “old Negro” (Daddy Hickman) prayerfully waiting on news concerning Sunraider’s...