Faster than a speeding Metro Rail! Able to leap insurmountable racial tensions in a single bound! Fighting for truth, justice and political correctness!
It’s . . . Superbook!
Would that it were. Actually, it’s “Brothers and Sisters,” Bebe Moore Campbell’s new novel about a barely fictionalized Los Angeles, set in the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest. It aspires to dizzying heights, trying in a 476-page fell swoop to pluck an array of social and ethnic types out of L.A.'s melting (actually, boiling) pot and satisfactorily resolve the burning question of whether or not we can all get along.
But Campbell is simply not up to the literary task she sets for herself here. This second novel, written in a far pulpier style than her first, “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine,” quickly collapses under the weight of its lofty intentions and winds up insulting the very people it means to humanize: white corporate executives, black corporate executives, middle-class people of both races, Latinos and--most unfortunately--the maligned populace of South-Central. In Moore’s heavy hands, they are all eminently forgettable mouthpieces for a variety of sociological ills that crowd out any possibility for engaging, believable characters.
Which is tragic, given the richness of culture and lifestyles that do exist here. A city long portrayed as either a sunny playground for Hollywood cutthroats or a bleak nether world devoid of spiritual life, Los Angeles rarely gets the cleareyed literary treatment it deserves. Campbell falls neatly into the trap with “Brothers and Sisters” by never taking the reader inside the characters. She tells us throughout the book how the smog, the heat, the charred remains of riot-ravaged buildings make for a supercharged atmosphere ripe for emotional explosions. But it’s visual, like a comic book, and you don’t believe it.
Trouble is evident on the very first page, as Campbell introduces the main character, bank operations manager Esther Jackson. The opening paragraphs are immediately overburdened with conflict:
“When Esther Jackson looked up from the stack of slick new hundred-dollar bills she was counting inside the teller’s cage of the downtown branch of Angel City National Bank, the black woman inhaled sharply. . . . Her English was clipped, as precise and well enunciated as that of any television anchor. Esther was looking . . . beyond the short brown man, across the downtown street. Three of the Los Angeles Police Department’s finest, all white, (stood over) two black boys, who were sitting on the sidewalk. Better not touch them! The words roared through her body. The diction in her head was as slurred and textured as the South Side Chicago neighborhood she’d grown up in.”
That Esther and other black characters in “Brothers and Sisters” have two brains that continually do battle--the ghetto-bred South Side versus the corporate-aspiring, wanna-be-white side--is the book’s most grievous oversimplification. It reinforces the dangerous notion that behind every serene African-American mask is a hypersensitive, raging animal poised to attack well-meaning but ignorant white folks at the drop of a racially colored remark. The far more complex reality of what W.E.B. Dubois called a “double consciousness,” the simultaneous embrace and rejection of American values by people of African descent, is in fact played out much more subtly on a daily basis.
Alas, Campbell gives us young men sporting baggy jeans who stand on street corners with brooding eyes and frozen snarls, ready to do battle; a high-powered black executive named Humphrey Boone who detests his black skin, despite the fact it’s regularly clothed in Armani; and Esther’s reluctance/eagerness to school her white colleague Mallory Post on the finer points of such (outdated) intra-racial buzz phrases as, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” “Brothers and Sisters” seems bent on giving outsiders (read: whites) a crash course in inner-city life, TV-news-style. Call it Ghetto 101.
It’s difficult to say exactly who Campbell is writing for, but the primary color-bright characterizations and sensational plot devices suggest that she’s aiming for a share of Terry McMillan’s market. But while McMillan, author of the phenomenally popular “Waiting to Exhale,” writes for the Jackie Collins crowd and clearly revels in her over-the-top creations, Campbell is not so consistent nor so honest.
Her intentions appeared earnest enough initially, but I couldn’t help feeling at points that I was reading a work written quickly so as to capitalize on the tribulations of the multicultural morass Los Angeles is now perceived as being. Clearly Campbell is more comfortable fictionalizing circumscribed events whose historical and social impact is beyond question: hence, “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine” was a more deeply felt and far more effective take on the tragic real-life murder of Emmett Till in the 1950s. “Brothers and Sisters” is a story in search of a truth that is far less easily defined.
Moore’s fictionalization of contemporary Los Angeles is weirdly ambiguous and adds to the implausibility of the whole story. While places such as Carson, Venice Beach, Normandie Avenue and Sunset Boulevard remain intact, Crenshaw becomes “Cranston” and an idyllic View Park-like neighborhood is “Park Crest.” Rev. Odell Rice of Solid Rock Baptist Church is a dead ringer for First A.M.E. pastor Cecil Murray, down to his high-profile business dealings with local banks and corporations. It’s as if Campbell, like too many others aspiring to write about Los Angeles, can’t quite decide how real she wants to make this world, how real she thinks it is.
I’d almost let her off the hook on this point and chalk up naivete to first impressions, but Campbell is an L.A. resident. Though she painstakingly describes streets and structures, you imagine she did it with the aid of a Thomas Bros. Guide. Ultimately there is no sense of a place because there is no sense of a people inhabiting it.
As far as beachside reading goes, “Brothers and Sisters” fits the bill: straight-ahead style, not mentally taxing, just lurid enough to keep you turning pages. It is interesting only because it tackles something few, if any writers have before. It’s just a shame that Campbell chooses to take the low road. She should have taken a hard, insightful look at her own back yard. Los Angeles merits at least that.