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Gristmill: Out of Iron City

Thu, 05/09/2024 - 09:32
Pittsburgh at night, 1996.
Patrick Alt / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

I have a bone to pick with the world. For whatever reason, I remember overhearing a discussion between two women — older, moneyed, yet naturally concerned — about how they’d penciled into their to-read list Colson Whitehead’s latest, whatever it was at the time, and this after it had won a Pulitzer, a not uncommon occurrence for him.

“This is sheep behavior,” I thought, fairly or not. Then, equally unfairly, “How about John Edgar Wideman?”

My defense? He simply seems an author who never got his due, or if that’s ridiculous to say about someone who twice won the PEN/Faulkner Award, then how about who never reached the broader audience he was due. Maybe because of his intellectualism. Because he’s not always so easy. But then that’s another kind of indictment, isn’t it.

Don’t get me wrong, you can count me among the admirers of Colson W., in particular “The Colossus of New York,” his essay collection, with its Port Authority rhapsodies. And he’s surely likable, as in that “Fresh Air” interview when he concluded by timidly inquiring, “Terry, if I could just add something?” (So spoke the Pulitzer winner.) He’s a nerd, frankly, which is also appealing, with his fascination with gadgets, mechanisms and their nomenclature, old-time machinery.  

But, unfairly again, he’s also representative of guys of some privilege who went to Harvard.

John Edgar Wideman went to an Ivy League school, too, U. Penn, on scholarship, hailing from the hard-times Homewood section of Pittsburgh, going on to play hoops at the university, captaining the team as one of its two Black players in the early 1960s.

I give credit to my own, smaller, lesser college for introducing me to him through “Brothers and Keepers,” his memoir about his incarcerated sibling. It hasn’t been perfect, but I’ve followed his career with interest ever since, concluding, for now, just now, with “Two Cities,” his 1998 novel.

Unfair, that’s the word that sticks with you after reading this half-devastating, half-beautiful look into life in the inner city, a look white people almost never get. The strong mother who’s endured the death of two sons to gang violence. The love of a diner owner for his own adopted son, one who nonetheless had ripped him off and was sent to prison.

And then there’s Martin Mallory, a perceptive, levelheaded World War II vet spending his last years walking the streets of Pittsburgh with his camera, a seeming eccentric skillfully capturing the souls of anyone and everyone around him. He worshiped Alberto Giacometti, and had carried on a one-way correspondence with the sculptor off in Paris. Mallory had been injured in Italy during his time with the less-than-equitable American military.

Sad and clingingly memorable, this is Wideman at work.

Something else about Martin Mallory. People don’t like to see merit unrewarded. It makes them uncomfortable. It reminds them of their own good fortune, perhaps unearned. Their luck.

He dies alone in a dingy apartment, endless photos and negatives crammed in cardboard boxes. His only friend at the end? That strong mother next door. He made her promise to burn all the boxes.

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