John Edgar Wideman - Philadelphia Fire

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A very overpraised book in my estimation, providing little insight into the topic

Feb 11, 2009 (Updated Feb 11, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:maybe the basketball game and the homeless man's stream of consciousness

Cons:structure, plot, charictarization, misogyny, simplistic analyses, etc.

The Bottom Line: I don't understand why Wideman's "fiction" is published, let alone praised and given awards!


I was hoping for some interesting perspective on Franz Fanon when I got John Edgar Wideman's Fanon. I was nost just  disappointed, but annoyed by the book, and was puzzled that it turned up on the New York Times list  of the hundred best books of 2008. Wideman's tedious book told about a writer unable to write a novel about Franz Fanon with a ludicrous subplot about receiving a severed head, plus visits to a brother serving a life sentence (as Wideman's is).

I hoped that Wideman's earlier (1990), PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Philadelphia Fire would be better. Alas, it is even less a novel than Fanon. In the first part, a black writer native to Philadelphia and who went to the University of Pennsylvania returns from expatriation (on Mykonos) aiming to write about the child who escaped the inferno of the MOVE house in 1985 and reflects a bit on his own son, who like Wideman's was imprisoned for murder, with a lengthy account of a pickup basketball game in which the aging writer is teamed with the younger brother of someone with whom he used to play (who is now in prison) . The second part is mostly recollection of preparation to put on a revisionist version of "The Tempest" with ghetto teenagers during a brief teaching stint during the late 1960s or early 1970s. The third part is mostly a stream of consciousness of a homeless black man in Philadelphia, who is close to where a suicide landed and who makes off with the man's briefcase (that contains a gun, one that is not fired within the confines of the book), followed by an account of a memorial service for those incinerated in the MOVE house.

Philadelphia Fire adds up to nothing, just as Fanon does. The writer within both novels fails to find anything much to say about his subjects.  The books are streams of consciousness by a writer with no ability to write about the historical event (the fire) or the historical personage (Fanon) he aspires to write about: not just bad fiction, but bad metafiction IMO. Other than lack of imagination and lack of narrative skill and lack of any serious research, the reader does not learn anything much about why the writer within the book can't write about the fire or Fanon.

Wideman's style grates. Whether the sentences are staccato or extended, they fail the (jazz) musicality others have claimed for Wideman's writing. For instance,

"When they pee in the weeds sounds like a fire. Weeds knee-high and crackling brown sometimes Alphonso fancied himself trucking through hog hair. Making tracks on a big pig's snout-pussed green moons. A sky with something always in its eye. No fingers to rub sh_t out. You can shortcut anywhere in the city through these dark empty overgrown lots. Sent by Vator, kind of the universe. You go in a phony, stiff-legged, cartoon run like Vator's boys across these raggedy field and the weeds sound like death brushing your jeans. You are a comb, a pick, a razor styling through this no-man's land of smoking weeds."

Some may consider this poetic prose. I don't. (And I did not miss typing any words in that first sentence!)

The writer within the book fails to find the child who escaped and does not attempt to imagine the perspective from inside the back-to-nature in the middle of the city cult/group.

I won't even start on the acute sexism of the narrator!

I  find the book disingenuous in containing not a single mention of the Jonestown fiasco, which was surely on the minds of Philadelphia authorities in 1985, two years into the first term of Philadelphia's first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode. (Wideman does acknowledge that there was a black mayor and that some of his former classmates held high positions in the city government.)

Wideman also fails to mention the claims that when attempts were made to serve warrants on the MOVE house at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia on the morning of 13 May 1985 , shots were fired from inside. Maybe there weren't any, and I am by no means defending the decision to attempt to drop an incendiary bomb on the house (one which burned the whole block — 61 houses — as well as incinerating eleven people inside the barricaded MOVE house).

The thin veil of fiction perhaps allows Wideman to ignore that two people got out of the conflagration: Michael Moses Ward, known as "Birdie Africa" who was 13 in 1985 (two years older than the single survivor in Wideman's fiction) and Ramona Africa, who was then 29 and was later convicted of riot and conspiracy charges and served seven years in prison, before winning a lawsuit in which a jury concluded that the city, former Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor and former Fire Commissioner William Richmond had used excessive force and had violated the MOVE members' constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Read after Ruby Ridge and Waco debacles with high white casualties, the simplistic explanation of "racism" is less convincing than it might have been to 1990 readers, though 1990 followed the re-election of Mayor Goode by the black majority of Philadelphians.

The book seems very padded and often incoherent to me (both at the sentence level and at the cobbling together of the three disparate parts). I did not find it  convincing as a novel (even a stream of consciousness novel) or as sociopolitical analysis. I don't think the invocations of either Ralph Ellison or Feodor Dostoevsky on the book jacket are justified. It may be Wideman's "most ambitious, most highly praised, and best-selling work of fiction," but Wideman is not a writer to whom I as a reader am going to give a third chance.

Both in the case of Philadelphia Fire and that of Fanon, I think that Wideman leeches onto matters of historical interest and fails to deliver any insight into them. There is very little about Fanon's life or work in Fanon and very little about the MOVE conflagration or those responsible (on either the MOVE or the police side) in Philadelphia Fire, so that I would indict both titles for false, parasitic advertising.


©  2009, Stephen O. Murray


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