And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church when he was there alone, sweeping, and running water into the great bucket, and overturning chairs, long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared.
I feel like I got way with something by reading Go Tell It on the Mountain for the latest Classics Club Spin. We were supposed to be reading one of the longer books on our lists, but I only put ten “big books” on mine, and the spin result happened to be Baldwin’s 1953 first novel. The one I borrowed from the library clocked in at 291 pages. Oh well. Those big books are still waiting for me.
This is a challenging books to write about. It’s a family story and a coming of age story. Goodreads says it’s semi-autobiographical and my copy’s jacket flap quotes Baldwin himself as saying, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” I’ve now read three of Baldwin’s books, and I’ve seen the exquisite documentary about him, I Am Not your Negro, but I do want to read a biography about him or at least do some more research into this life.
Not only is this book challenging to describe but it was challenging to read as well, because I felt so bad for the main character, the young teenager John. His family lives in 1930’s era New York City, and his cold and critical father Gabriel is an associate pastor of a very Evangelical type of church. His world seems pretty sheltered and restricted, and you can feel John wanting to break free and explore the variety of experience that New York offers.
He stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna! He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far way. For it was his; the inhabitants of the city had told him it was his; he had but to run down, crying, and the would take him to their hearts and show him wonders his eyes had never seen.
Gabriel and John do not get along, and we come to find out that John is Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth’s son by another man. Gabriel becomes a bit more humanized and sympathetic as we delve into flashbacks of his story, and we come to understand in flashbacks how and why Elizabeth married him as well. The last section of the book is John’s feverish, nightmarish religious experience (salvation? conversion?) with an ambiguous ending.
Did I enjoy this book? Enjoy is not exactly the word – it was a surprisingly page-turning read. Some parts were more engaging than others, especially the back stories of John’s aunt Florence and mother Elizabeth. But I gave it four stars because of the beauty and precision of the language and the challenging spiritual imagery.
Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.
Have you read this? If you’ve read Baldwin before, what is your favorite of his books? Are you interested in seeing the new film If Beale Street Could Talk (based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel?)