three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
user_rating: 
0

Stories

A-GodsGymIn the opening story "Weight," a son describes his dead mother’s beliefs as he carries her coffin: "My mother believes in a god whose goodness would not permit him to inflict more troubles than a person can handle. A god of mercy and salvation. A sweating, bleeding god presiding over a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles." This same intensity pervades the stories in God’s Gym. Whether it’s an interracial couple fighting through their holiday in Martinique or Thelonius Monk chastising the author for putting words into his mouth, no one is exempt from the hard work of understanding human life—and deciphering the boundaries between fact and fiction.
Houghton Mifflin. 176 pages. $23. ISBN: 0618515259

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]here is a flinty whiff of mortality to these tales, their willingness to go straight at the matter but still call themselves fiction. Clearly, Wideman has a reckoning to make, and aside from his obvious lyrical gifts, witnessing that on the page is one big reason why you should buy these stories, to take them home, and to hold on tight." John Freeman

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"A responsible reader works hard to avoid the guilty thrill of equating an author and his characters, his life and his plots. But one cannot help wondering, while reading these narratives, what a writer must endure to gain the understanding of the human condition required to bring these stories to fruition, each so beautiful and so steeped in pain." Tayari Jones

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The stories are the sound of worlds cracking and collapsing. Whether it’s two neighbors of many years having their first, and what will ultimately be their last, conversation in ‘Sharing,’ or the disintegrating love affair at the center of ‘Fanon,’ these stories are conveyed by characters who are almost painfully aware that they are telling a very private story." Kristofer Collins

Dallas News 3 of 5 Stars
"In a voice as muscular and at the same time intimate as any in contemporary fiction, Mr. Wideman bulls his way into the reader’s awareness, employing a marvelous fusion of plastic language and the aesthetic of musician-composer Thelonius Monk, the rhythms of bebop, the emotion of action painting and the excitement of b-ball." Alan Cheuse

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Beautiful, lyrical passages are almost undone by bursts of free association riffs on words and images that seem to serve little purpose but to show us what he can do. But these are not limitations in Wideman’s skill as a writer; he is a craftsman in complete control of his material." Julie Wittes Schlack

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"This am-I-telling-you-the-truth-or-not can become an intrusive affectation. … Through it all, Wideman is always present, naggingly visible to the reader. Thus his protagonists are believable when they resemble him, and unbelievable when they don’t." Reagan Upshaw

Critical Summary

Nearly every review of God’s Gym draws the parallel between jazz and Wideman’s writing. Just as our American music encompasses melody and dissonance, ballads and funk, so there are dualities aplenty at work here. Wideman continues to disdain the border between fiction and reality as he draws from well-known biographical facts for his stories. Characters commit violent acts, but only in their imaginations. His imposition as a narrator annoys some critics, yet none can claim that Wideman, the only two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner award, isn’t in complete control of his skills. And while he doesn’t shy away from being a "difficult" writer, he gilds his challenges with resonant emotional truths.