three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
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A-A Fathers LawRichard Wright, whose powerful, groundbreaking novels brought to light the racial inequality and social injustice of pre–civil rights era America, began writing A Father’s Law six weeks before his death in 1960. It has now been published to commemorate the centenary of Wright’s birth. Rudolph "Ruddy" Turner, a black police captain in Chicago, is summoned to city hall in the middle of the night and appointed police chief of Brentwood Park, an affluent, mostly white suburb being terrorized by a serial killer. On the verge of retirement and looking forward to spending more time with his wife Agnes and his troubled son Tommy, a sociology student at the University of Chicago, Turner only reluctantly takes the position. In an attempt to draw his son out, Turner enlists his help in profiling the murderer. But it soon becomes clear to Ruddy that Tommy may, in fact, be the murderer.
Harper Perennial. 268 pages. $14.95. ISBN: 006134916X

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"None of the novels Wright published after Native Son compares in depth of character, breadth of narrative and thematic impact to A Father’s Law. … Themes of crime and punishment, the nature of freedom, the nature of the law, of parental relations and the relation of citizen to community all are writ large in this compelling draft composed in a forward-moving style, with prose that’s easy to engage and characters who are difficult to ignore." Alan Cheuse

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is by no means a perfect novel, and it has gaps in its narrative like other unfinished works. But what the book lacks in polish and gloss, it makes up for in the strength and pull of its story, which is surprisingly contemporary for one written close to half a century ago." W. Ralph Eubanks

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"The sense of incompleteness is part and parcel of the experience of reading A Father’s Law, even up to the ‘surprise’ ending that suggests a rapid cobbling of storylines to tie things up in a neat bow. … The result is not totally satisfying but a valuable addition to his legend nevertheless." Eugene Kane

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The detective-story-within-a-family-drama sometimes feels forced, the relationship between Ruddy and Tommy intriguing but not fully fleshed out. The age-old tension between fathers and sons is a deep well, and I suspect Wright would have explored the depths a little further had this master of psychological torment had more time to craft this last, promising, novel." Tyrone Beason

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"By 1960 Wright had spent over a decade in self-imposed exile, out of touch with the American idiom and American reality, a problem all too evident here. The language is stilted, and unlike Wright’s classics of racial identity, this sketchy novel has virtually nothing to say about race, treating as literally unremarkable the appointment of a black police chief in the Jim Crow America that Wright himself had fled." Amanda Heller

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The novel was to be Wright’s attempt at a ‘psychological thriller,’ Julia Wright explains in her introduction, but it’s rough going, marked by stilted dialogue, high-pitched melodrama and a windy, convoluted narrative. It feels very much like a work-in-progress, something still circling around to find itself." Lynell George

NY Times Book Review 1 of 5 Stars
"Its flaws are so many and so foregrounded that they all but dare the reader to work through them and engage the ideas with which Wright was grappling. Without having first read his thunderous classics, one might plausibly dismiss this author as a tendentious, technically naïve amateur and disdain the works that made him indispensable in American letters." Ron Powers

Critical Summary

Richard Wright’s unfinished novel divided critics. Some hailed it as "a prescient examination of the generational and class conflicts that await black Americans as they move from the margins of society into the cultural mainstream" (Washington Post); others panned its wooden dialogue, melodrama, and disappointing exploration of racial identity. They all agreed, however, that Wright would most certainly have tackled these narrative flaws. Despite the novel’s shortcomings, Wright’s admirers will be grateful for the opportunity to hear his voice once more.

The Author’s Classics

Native Son (1940):In this unforgettable novel of bigotry and violence, Bigger Thomas, a troubled young black man from a Chicago ghetto, tries to make his way in a world governed by white privilege when an accident causes him to spiral out of control.

Black Boy (1945): In this compelling autobiography, Richard Wright recounts his early life—from his childhood on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, through the criticism he suffered from his strict, religious family and the inescapable racism of the early 20th century, to the genesis of his writing career in 1930s Chicago.