TEXT: Land of the Black Squirrels: A Bronx Boheme Novel
GENRE: Fiction/ African American Fiction
PG CNT: 264pp
PUB: Thirty-three Pages. Plymouth, MA
FRMT: Paperback & Digital
LAND of the BLACK SQUIRRELS is a new novel by playwright & musician, Mwalim and is book one of his forthcoming series, Bronx Boheme. Mwalim, who is a cult figure in the east coast spoken-word, Black theater, and music scene; as well as a member of the Grammy nominated soul-funk band, The GroovaLottos, takes us on a journey through two worlds that he obviously knows intimately: the Northeast Bronx, and the world of the underground artist. In many ways, this novel reminds me of the experimental novels that were popular in the 50's and 60's, like NAKED LUNCH, by William S. Burroughs or MUMBO JUMBO, by Ishmeal Reed. and departure from much of the literature found in most of today's African American market.
In the opening sentence of the prologue (the only part of the novel written in the first person), we find a clue as to what we are in for, as Mwalim explains that, "Welcome to a story I've been telling for years; like a jazz tune with evolving melodies and improvised solos..." In the same way that the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Rasaan Roland Kirk, or Yusef Latin are not quick, easy listens, or solutions to instant gratification; Mwalim's novel is not a quick, passive, brain-candy read. Mwalim's writing style has the ability to pull the reader into the story through sights, sounds, and smells, but I can also see that readers with short attention spans would probably get lost.
To be honest, when I got to page 44 it sank in that what I was reading was a poem of sorts... the kind you hear at poetry readings in cafes and libraries. When I allowed the "storyteller" and characters to do the driving, I discovered a beautiful story with richly developed characters, places and events that became real to me.
The story opens in the present with the narrator entering The Bronx from the north and parking in his old neighborhood, The Valley. From there we go back to 1969 and meet the main character, Oba, his buddy Marshall, and wife Vivian. From there, the story spans a 40 year period, from legendary Harlem night clubs, to Brooklyn and South Bronx warehouse spaces turned into make-shift, night clubs. By the end of the novel, characters like Atif, Raymond, Yusef, The B Man, and Franz all feel more like old friends than simply characters in a novel and I was sorry to come to the end. Personally, I'm glad this is a series.
Another curious aspect of the book is the tendency for it to jump around outside of chronological order. Again, my first instinct was to wonder why the author would do this. It can be rather confusing for folks who need a linear narrative. Here again, I think this is where the poet takes over and we are experiencing episodes and memories, which rarely come in sequential order. Storytelling in this fashion brings to mind films like "Pulp Fiction" or a film I recently saw on Netflix called, "Soundtrack", where telling the story out of sequence serves to shape the over-all narrative.
The author's background as a playwright definitely shines through in the character's dialogue. I would urge him, in future installment of the series to use more dialogue and less scene description, as it is the dialogue that brought the characters to life for me.
Land of the Black Squirrels is a challenging read, but is worth the extra effort. It is a journey into a fictional take on an otherwise very real world. It also gives a glimpse into the recent past and a New York that is rapidly disappearing. As Mwalim takes us into a lower east side loft club in the 1990s, the sense of nostalgia is clear and intoxicating. I highly recommend it for lovers of well written, deep, and complex fiction.