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Tales From an Old Black Neighborhood : THE AVENUE, CLAYTON CITY <i> by C. Eric Lincoln (William Morrow: $17.95; 320 pp.) </i>

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<i> Bradley is the author of "The Chaneysville Incident" (Avon) and other works</i>

Clayton City, is one of those mythic towns that, in the imaginations of fiction writers, become stages for powerful human dramas of murder and revenge, of longstanding passion, and long-festering secrets. The Avenue is one of those symbolic streets which, in the hands of fiction writers, can unite a host of characters, a multitude of story lines. But the writer in the case of “The Avenue, Clayton City,” is C. Eric Lincoln, who, in 1961, brought the Nation of Islam to the attention of America--indeed, who invented the term “Black Muslims”--and whose bibliography, while impressive (nineteen titles) includes no other fiction. The result is a very mixed blessing.

Billed as a novel, “The Avenue, Clayton City,” begins like a good one. In the opening chapter, “Under the Streetlight,” we meet Ben (Guts) Gallimore, owner of the Blue Flame Cafe, the only black restaurant in segregated Clayton City in the days just before World War II. Guts, true to his name a prodigious purveyor of down-home cooking, is a man with a dream: A senior deacon in the Burning Bush Baptist Church, “Over the years, he had continued to wait patiently for the call from the Lord which would allow him to swap his greasy apron and the Blue Flame for a gub-back coat and a little church with a steeple on top . . . Any day now he could go home and go to bed one night a businessman, and wake up the next morning Rev. Ben T. Gallimore.”

We start home with Guts after closing down the Blue Flame, but leave him when he encounters a crowd of corner boys, who are gathered beneath a street light to play the dozens. We hang with them a while, listening to the ribald banter (“Good night, Guts. Don’t let your meat loaf, your gravy might curdle.”) and then discover that listening with us, from his office across the street is Dr. Walter Pickney Tait.

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Shifting to Tait’s consciousness, we learn about Clayton City--”a metropolis not burdened with a history of great significance or with a future of probable consequences for the world beyond its borders”--and its symbolic geography. The Avenue, the umbilical connecting the white and black sections, is to Tait “a depressing ridiculous strip of graveled road with sidewalks! No curbs, no gutters, no pavement and bordered by ditches three feet deep and full of weeds . . . But to most of the colored people of Clayton The Avenue was their most important symbol of status and elevation.” The more prosperous blacks--including Tait live near its upper end.

Tait himself is man with a shaded past--he “just sort of materialized, nobody was paying much attention” and there is much speculation about the validity of his degree and the parentage of his reclusive, alcoholic half-white wife--and a troubled present. His 18-year-old daughter, Makeda is secretly pregnant, and it is more than hinted that when the news spreads beyond Tait and Makeda there will be dire and far-reaching consequences. Tait’s trouble seems to be that his role requires that he expose the secret himself: “He was the doctor, real or imaginary, and sooner or later he would need to take up his scalpel and expose something malignant, malodorous and unclean.”

In the second chapter, “House Calls,” we follow Tait as he pursues his morning rounds, meeting fascinating characters. There’s 87-year-old Sis’ Inis Wells, who “although she had not specific ailments she could point to . . . coveted the attention ‘doctor’ gave her, and apparently thrived on it” along with doses of moonshine-spiked tea. “ ‘My doctor done told me I’m gwine prob’ live forever,’ she confided to the neighbors, ‘but I’m gwine fool him one of these days. I aims to live a heap longer’n that!’ ”

There’s 400-pound Good Jelly: “There he lay, four hundred pounds of lard cut to ribbons by some other Saturday night character swinging a razor over some imagined wrong . . . (Tait had) had to take seventy-two stitches in Good Jelly to stop the blood . . . they wouldn’t take him at the local hospital . . . the practice was not to admit any cut-and-shoot cases on the weekend . . . if the niggers in Clayton wanted to slaughter each other every Saturday night, that was their business, but the County wasn’t going to encourage it by picking up the bill.” And there is Addie Ferguson, the perfect matron--except for her childlessness due to “women troubles.” Her husband, Bonus “had a secret pride in the fact that he was one of the few colored men in town whose wife could sit down at home while he worked” and, after Addie’s hysterectomy, “was grateful that the doctor thought enough of his wife stop by and see her almost every day.” On this day and others, the good doctor’s visit lasts from eleven to one. Following that interlude with “the woman who had become for him the only significant reward for his participation in Clayton City’s human comedy,” Tait joins the funeral procession of ex-patient Lucy Lunceford, who “had probably gone to her grave worrying about the welfare of a sorry lot of niggers who didn’t have the grace to worry about themselves,” as moves towards Burning Bush Baptist Church.

These two chapters are impressively crafted, boasting excellent use of language and a compelling narrative flow. Unfortunately, following them the book just loses its way. Rather than a chapter about the funeral--or anything else relevant--what appears next is a series of tales (as opposed to chapters) having plots and characters related vaguely--if at all--to the established tensions.

The tales are usually amusing and well-rendered. In “Coley’s Hand” a bootlegger manipulates a shell-shocked World War I veteran into committing a murder, and is then hoist by his own petard. In “Nish” a black boy rides the emotional roller coaster of teen-age love, without realizing that it is also a socially forbidden love, and Lincoln gives this somewhat obvious tale depth by replacing it in counterpoint to the situation of Nish’s white employer, whose son has brought a Jewish girl home for Christmas. “Lil’ Un,” by contrast, is a perfect tromp l’oeil about a mentally slow but physically powerful country boy’s odyssey to visit the love of his life, while “When God Messed Over Vernon” is an ironic fable about black upward mobility; in it Vernon, who hopes to better himself by raising livestock, is accused of cohabiting with a cow--and is lynched for it. Other tales are weaker. In particular “The Fort” a plotless narrative about the black school established after the Civil War by Northern whites, mixed in an artless and confusing way.

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The book, as a whole, is similarly artless and confusing. The careful control of the early chapters does not return in the final sections, “Mama Lucy” and “The Final Appointment.” Although we do learn of the life of Lucy Lunceford, many of the characters--especially Nish--seem to have aged miraculously, as if the digressive tales were really flashbacks (although there is no attempt to integrate them in that way).

Although the funeral at Burning Bush Baptist is gloriously rendered, it doesn’t fit with what has gone before. Lincoln, it seems, has forgotten about the dream of Guts Gallimore; another deacon delivers the stirring prayer, while Guts is not present at all. The ending has so many sudden contrivances--in particular, the unanticipated appearance of a white patient who holds the key to all Tait’s early tension--that the god in the machine becomes a frequent flyer.

An author’s first work of fiction should be judged by more forgiving standards than later ones, even if that author is an accomplished stylist. For no matter how experienced a writer may be in other forms, when he attempts fiction he becomes a rookie. And so one wants to say that “The Avenue, Clayton City” is a good first novel--in this case especially, because C. Eric Lincoln has written not only well but valuably throughout a long career. But what is wrong with “The Avenue, Clayton City” cannot be passed off as rookie error. The “novel” has a wonderful beginning, but no middle and a contrived ending. The material in the tales could have provided that middle, but it remains unintegrated. The result something that is a whole only because it is bound in covers. It is probably not finished. It is certainly not very good.

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