Early on in “Reckless Eyeballing,” one of the book’s many beleaguered black men observes that “throughout history when the brothers feel that they’re being pushed against the wall, they strike back and when they do strike back it’s like a tornado, uprooting, flinging about, and dashing to pieces everything in its path.” This passage provides a perfect entryway into Ishmael Reed’s latest novel, for like many other black men, Reed obviously feels that “the brothers” are catching it from all sides--and not just from the usual sources of racial bigotry, but from ‘60s liberals now turned neo-conservatives, from white feminists who propagate the specter of the black men as phallic oppressor, from other racial minorities anxious to wrest various monkeys off their own backs.
But the central betrayers in Reed’s new novel are blacks themselves, especially black feminists and artists whom he presents as having sold out and joined the white conspiracy to keep black men in slavery. So in “Reckless Eyeballing,” we see Reed striking back by creating a literary tornado, a book so irreverent and sweeping in its condemnations that it’s certain to offend just about everyone. It’s also an extraordinarily timely novel that depicts--in Reed’s usual complex of penetrating satire, surrealism, allegory and farce--the central sources of confusion and pain confronting black men in contemporary society.
From the outset of his career, which has now produced four books of poetry and two books each of essays and plays in addition to seven novels, Reed has insisted that black experience can’t be “contained” in traditional white symbols and forms. “Reckless Eyeballing,” like Reed’s other novels, self-consciously appropriates aspects of familiar forms--in this case, the detective formula and the search-for-selfhood motif (the latter virtually synonymous with “serious” black writing)--but then demolishes these structures by introducing his own distinctive blend of discontinuity, verbal play and jive talk, and outrageous (often offensive) humor.
The book’s plot revolves around Ian Ball, a naive Southern playwright who has been “sex-listed” by feminists for his first play but who has now arrived in New York City with high hopes for a new play (“Reckless Eyeballing”) in which, as Ball puts it, “the women get all the good parts and best speeches.” Ball initially has the support of several powerful allies--notably Jewish director Jim Minsk and feminist producer Barbara Sedgwick--but soon after the novel opens, things begin to unravel for him: Minsk is ceremonially murdered by a group of Southern racists (a scene showing Reed at his macabre, bitterly humorous best) and Sedgwick decides she wants to shuffle Ball’s play off to a minor theater and devote her energies to a play that “reclaims” Eva Braun’s reputation (“She may be a Nazi whore to sexists like you,” she tells Minsk, “but to many of us, she epitomizes woman’s universal suffering”). Soon Minsk has been replaced by Tremonisha Smarts, a black feminist playwright who gained fame for writing “Wrongheaded Man,” a lurid melodrama about a black man going on a spree of woman bashing, rape and incest; this spree, not coincidentally, recalls what occurs in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” as does the fact that a film version of Smarts’ play is written, produced and directed by white males.
Smarts is also the first victim of a mysterious series of crimes in which well-known feminists are tied up and have their heads shaved by a black man who models his actions after the French Resistance, which used to shave the heads of women collaborating with the Nazi’s. Detective Lawrence O’Reedy, a geriatric version of Dirty Harry, who is haunted by the ghosts of his racist past, eventually ties most of the novel’s main characters to the case of the head-shaver. As the hunt progresses, so does Ball’s search for self-understanding and aesthetic guidance.
“Reckless Eyeballing” suggests that the forces currently oppressing black men have become increasingly complex. It’s no accident that references to the recent rightward drift of the United States has ominous implications for all black men. The erosion of individual rights and social services, an interventionist foreign policy, capital punishment, the widening gulf between the have’s and have-not’s--these all affect black men very directly.
Reed is also aware that naked racial oppression has, for the most part, been replaced by more subtle but ultimately no-less-destructive influences on black people. By focusing on the dilemma of the contemporary black artist, Reed shows that black culture today is threatened just as much by co-opting and the myriad temptations of self-serving expediency as by violence. Thus his new novel angrily denounces the hypocritical attitude of many whites toward black society: While whites voyeuristically devour black culture for its passion, exoticism and flair, they also obsessively worry about any “reckless eyeballing” (note the puns in Ball’s name) that blacks may perpetrate against their own domain.
Finally, it is Reed who is the real “reckless eyeballer” here; and he is certain to be cursed for having “the evil eye” by blacks as well as whites, as he probes into areas which most of us would prefer to keep concealed. Like several other notable black authors--Chester Himes, Charles Wright and Clarence Major--Reed presents a vision “reckless” in the extreme: raw, abrasive, sexist, irritating. But it’s a vision that needs to be confronted (and perhaps challenged) by a public all too accepting of the deodorized banalities of “The Bill Cosby Show” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.”