By Steven Nester
Bernard Wolfe’s satirical and allegorical novel The Late Risers couldn’t be read at a more appropriate time than now. What begins as a shovelful of dirt on the grave of Damon Runyon quickly becomes an examination of race and what constitutes the identity of an American—two issues that remain as contentious today as ever. First published in 1954 (and later reprinted as Everything Happens at Night), it’s still an entertaining book. At times ponderous, madcap, and preposterous, its balance between medium and message merits it being given another chance by readers.
The ostensible (and complicated) plot concerns efforts by Broadway talent agents and others to win their clients some ink in the trades, and most urgently, to procure for visiting Hollywood cowboy star Biff Jordan (“a Valentino in dungarees”) a hot date while he’s in New York City. The Late Risers’ time frame and locale are roughly the same as those for William S. Burroughs’s Junkie (I’d bet my bottom dollar that he and Wolfe encountered each other somewhere at the Crossroads of the World—they just had to!). But if readers are hoping for a cross-pollination between the rising Beat Generation and dying Broadway showbiz hucksters—like, say, Billy Rose or Walter Winchell conflated with Herbert Huncke or Lenny Bruce—they’ll be disappointed to find that the pastrami served in the delis of this era’s 42nd Street is not cured with marijuana smoke, though plenty a people do partake of pot in Wolfe’s tale. So then, why read this seemingly dated book?
Wolfe’s ability to entertain is clear and confirmed. As an encyclopedist he refers to a plethora of cultural references to give more depth to people, places, and things; but he also has the eye of a minimalist, capturing essentials with a simplicity guaranteed to please a sensibility that appreciates haiku-length phrasing containing a pith of truth. For instance, in these pages Bing Crosby is said to possess a “sports shirt personality,” and above New York is a “spittoon sky.” Despite extravagances such as “her eyes were full of handclaps” and “her face was a charity drive,” the results of squeezing something from nothing are plainly more amusing and poignant, and no one can do it in quite the way Wolfe can. Witness this oft-cited exchange between a Hollywood agent and his girlfriend as they encounter a young self-conscious carhop named Biff Jordan.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” the man finally asked.Wolfe does have a message—just don’t be distracted by the old-school Broadway razzle-dazzle that most of his characters spew; there’s enough such patter here to give Guys and Dolls a run for its money. And, yeah, The Late Risers is at times wearing, and impatient readers might feel impelled to pick up their own shovel and give Wolfe a hand; but those who allow this book a chance to prove its value are eventually treated to a prescient vision and empathetic look at what it’s like to be a black man, circa the 1950s. Our tour guide is an African-American character with the name of Movement.
“Six ways from Sunday,” the girl said.
“That,” the man said, “is a shitkicker. Does calisthenics every time you look at him.”
“That’s a shitkicker to end shitkickers,” the girl said.
“Even his eyeballs blush,” the man said. “You look at him, his hands get like windmills. That’s a shitkicker for the connoisseur. That’s a shitkicker’s shitkicker.”
“He introduces an entirely new dimension into shitkicking,” the girl said. “With him it becomes an art form, like ballet.”
“That,” the man said, “is shitkicking like Shakespeare would do it. Odets. De Mille.”
Their conversation puzzled Biff: they sounded like scientists trying to classify a bug.
Movement is the go-to guy when hipper members of the Times Square crew need pot. “Rampart Street easy and Sugar Hill offhand,” he cuts a smooth figure, but not one of his own devising. He quotes Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (a kind of key to this book), wears Brooks Brothers suits, drives a Mercedes, sports an earring, and has a mentor in the wealthy Vanderbilt Bohlen, who’s a cross between John Hammond and Alan Lomax. Here’s where Wolfe, author of A Study of Race Relations in American Popular Culture, makes his insightful statement on race and America with the mind of an analyst and the soul of a poet.
Professor Wedemeyer is an intense and conflicted intellectual “caught between conjure and Das Kapital.” Dying of cancer, the character falls back to the primitive and asks friend and ghost-writer Don Kiefer to locate in New York City a voodoo witch doctor, “an anachronism pounding his herbs among the neons” in a last-ditch search for a cure. The Professor requests that the practitioner be a skilled black man, of course, because “This is not an area for the American initiative and self-help. Here we need the authorities with the know-how”—a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.
Kiefer enlists Movement in the search, but after combing the city they discover that anyone with any kind of voodoo ability is now gainfully employed in Detroit and out of the spell-casting business. So Movement takes on the role of shaman, and to keep everything authentic for the Professor, darkens his light skin with burnt cork. Anyone nodding off while reading this book would have to be jarred awake by the irony of that endeavor.
Movement is a fabrication. He got his name, his game, his savoir faire from the intellectual and arts patron Bohlen. Bohlen also taught Movement how to play the drums; a skill which, in less politically corrected times, one would think came naturally to Movement. Also, the ceremony Movement portrayed in his sham witch doctor performance was one he learned by listening to Bohlen’s record collection. People are not always who they seem to be in this book, and E pluribus unum, Movement discovers, is not as easy as it sounds. For African Americans who try to make their way into white American society, it can sometimes be forced on them. Beneath the cultivated façade, Movement is an angry man.
White Americans are “hyphenated,” he says. Bound by the identity of their heritage, they can never let go of the past and look ahead to achieve fruition as individuals and be a truly unified people, but at least they have something to work with. The African American has other problems. “Thanks to 330 meaningless years without a past and without a face,” writes Wolfe, “he’d been cut off from Africa as no white American had ever been cut off from Europe. So the Negro was the only 100 percent American—the only completely fluid, cosmic, all-at-once man.” Blacks have no identity, the argument goes, and this allows others to impose identities upon them. And with what might be the good, such as Bohlen’s tutelage, comes the bad, which is the humiliating experience Movement has of being stereotyped and hunted by predatory white women, of becoming an object for their fantasies of being taken by a “pirate,” a “bushman,” a mauling “night animal,” setting the clock back 330 years. For people with Movement’s intellect and sensitivity, this is a demeaning and dehumanizing situation.
The Late Risers will never be taught in literature classes, but credit is owed to Wolfe for the repertoire of devices he uses and the thematic depth he creates here. As for how and why Movement was given his name, and what his ultimate fate is, and the mutable fates of the huge cast of characters … well, readers will just have to pick up a copy of The Late Risers and find out those answers for themselves.
READ MORE: “The Book You Have to Read: In Deep, by Bernard Wolfe,” by Steven Nester (The Rap Sheet).