Where We’ve Been : THE STREET, <i> By Ann Petry (Houghton Mifflin: $9.95; 436 pp.)</i>
First published almost 50 years ago, “The Street” remains a powerful, angry, surprisingly contemporary novel. The problems of its keenly observed urban setting--poverty, racism, sexism--have, if anything, intensified in the intervening years. Far from being dated, Ann Petry’s vision seems prescient, Cassandra-like, a foretelling of conditions that needed only the addition of crack cocaine and 60 million handguns to become today’s inner-city disaster.
Equally striking about “The Street,” however, are its artistry and technique. From Page 1 we were swept into a tight, compelling narrative, a world peopled by characters drawn with such precision and insight that it stands as a major literary invention. Petry deftly manages to convey a multiplicity of perspectives, each rendered with fullness and generosity. We understand these men and women, see through their eyes, experience the brief flares of hope that race like shooting stars across their otherwise bleak and limiting environment.
At the heart of the novel is Lutie Johnson, an attractive young woman separated from her unemployed husband and attempting to raise her 8-year-old son, Bub, on her own in Harlem. She throws herself into a succession of jobs, from foster mother to live-in domestic, from low-level civil servant to night-club singer, never asking for favors or expecting the best, but never quite giving up, either. Lutie Johnson is an incandescent spirit trapped in circumstances that constantly conspire to douse her potential. White women view her as a threat and men of every race appraise her as a possible conquest. Whenever she allows herself to be naive enough to forget the rules of the game--that is, that an impoverished black woman alone is considered prey--she is violently reminded of her situation.
Forced by lack of money to live in a dismal apartment on a depressing street, Lutie is surrounded by people who have been beaten down by life. Mrs. Hedges, a madam, is a sentry at the first-floor window, her huge, scarred body overseeing all that transpires. Min, the common-law wife of the superintendent, has abandoned pride in everyone and everything save one prized possession: a table with a secret drawer. And even Jones, the super--a marvelously self-involved and malevolent villain--has lost all imagination of love, except under the guise of violence.
One of the factors that makes “The Street” a truly great book, rather than simply a fascinating example of mid-century social realism, is that the plot manages to be inexorable without being predictable. Personalities are complex, not stand-ins for the author’s politics.
The usually patient Lutie, frustrated to the point of rage by powerlessness, on occasion unleashes her anger on her son, and Jones, along with being evil, is also pitiable. Petry resists melodrama, never resorts to dialect or cheap idiom in order to suggest context, and asks for no charity. We care about Lutie Johnson because she’s a tough, hard-working woman. She may be gullible but she isn’t stupid; she may be frightened, but that makes her courage all the more admirable. It’s her resilience, her fight, that elevates this serious novel from the depressing read it might have been and transforms it into a classic, without boundaries of ethnicity or time.
Ann Petry has a grand, impressive talent, and “The Street” compares favorably with the best of Steinbeck, Dos Passos or Upton Sinclair. She integrates a strong feminist perspective with a broad social conscience, and in the process is able to evoke a neighborhood that is both grim with accumulated oppression and alive with a sense of community:
Getting off the subway one evening, Lutie “noticed that once the crowd walked the length of the platform and started up the stairs toward the street, it expanded in size. The same people who had made themselves small on the train, even on the platform, suddenly grew so large they could hardly get up the stairs to the street together. She reached the street at the very end of the crowd and stood watching them as they scattered in all directions, laughing and talking to each other.”
Without once stumbling, Petry writes credibly from the points of view not only of men, women and children but also of a place that, hard as it was, now seems in some respects almost nostalgically benign. The streets of New York, as she describes them in the mid-1940s, were indisputably mean to the downtrodden, but in those days it was still possible for a Lutie Johnson to walk 12 blocks safely, at midnight, or to ride the last subway alone. It was a place where the worst thing a child might bring to public school was a penknife, a place where neighbors tried to watch out for each other, where violent death was a rare and awful occurrence.
In the bright light of retrospect, just solutions, sadly, seemed more within reach then than they do today. Lutie Johnson had it bad, there’s no denying, but Bub’s children have got it worse.