three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
By: 
Kevin Baker
user_rating: 
0

A-StriversRowHere is the third novel in Baker’s City of Fire trilogy, a fictionalized portrayal of historical events in New York City. In 1943, Malcolm Little (not yet Malcolm X) leaves Boston, boards the train as a "sandwich man," and arrives in the Harlem of the Apollo Theater, the Renaissance Ballroom, the brick churches, the jazz greats, the racial hostilities. A smart, impulsive, and cocky young numbers runner and street hustler, Malcolm meets Harlem’s pulsating streets head on. Jonah Dove, by contrast, is a young, educated Harlem minister and resident of the elite Strivers Row who lives in his father’s shadow and suffers a guilty conscience when he "passes" for white. As their paths cross, each man articulates different ideas about black empowerment. Strivers Row, a portrait of wartime Harlem, recreates Malcolm’s triumph over racism and his dreams of a new racial order.
HarperCollins. 560 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0060195835

Houston Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Baker’s novels are filled with the sights, sounds and smells of worlds that even great writers such as Henry James don’t know exist, worlds that produce real people who make history. … How long, the newly arrived Malcolm asks himself rhetorically, ‘does it take to get used to one’s ghetto, to cling to it?’ Strivers Row asks the more important question of how long it takes to leave it." Allen Barra

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Like his previous two novels, Strivers Row is chock full of familiar names, as Baker re-imagines an America on the cusp of the painful—and continuing—self-examination of its racism. Kevin Baker has made a career as a master researcher, and Strivers Row brims with period detail and vividly imagined chance encounters between crucial figures." Randy Michael Signor

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In a strange and accidental way, Malcolm also turns out to be Jonah’s conscience. … Baker has wrapped up his New York trilogy with power and grace." Robin Vidimos

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"The narrative addresses many sensitive topics, highlighting the ugly tension between the races that has never abated in this country and shows few signs of ever doing so. … What troubles me about Baker’s portrayal of these subjects, besides Malcolm’s pasteurized criminality, is the thorny stereotype that his important black characters were, each one, redeemed in some sense by a white person." Jay Atkinson

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"Reading Kevin Baker, the extravagantly praised historical novelist whose Strivers Row is the capstone of his New York City trilogy, is like watching a Ken Burns adaptation of an Arthur Schlesinger history volume: The production is diligently researched and the era is captured through evocative and stylized touches, but it’s hard to stifle a yawn over the conventionality of the whole project. … Mr. Baker, for all his talent at establishing a milieu, not only builds strawmen but sets them ablaze." Bill Kauffman

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"It’s the least fantastical of his three novels and, I’m sorry to say, the least fantastic. Readers coming to Baker for the first time will discover in Strivers Row a panoramic recreation of Harlem in all its explosive opportunity and vice. But his many devoted fans, like me, are bound to find this final volume surprisingly muted, as though the author had decided it was high time to put away the melodrama and pyrotechnics that inflamed his first two books." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

The novel is daring in capturing the mood and history of New York’s blacks, particularly since the author is white. Relying on sources including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Baker melds fact and fiction to paint a vibrant portrait of pre–civil rights America. The period details, the descriptions of Jonah’s "passing" in white locales, and Baker’s incisive depiction of racism’s psychological damage stand out. Yet some critics saw this panoramic history as too ambitious while at the same time falling into the conventional; some felt that this era is still too sensitive to examine objectively. Either way, Strivers Row captures a Harlem whose glitter masked its racial violence.

Previously in the Trilogy

Dreamland (1999): Myriad subplots abound in this novel of turn-of-the-century New York City, covering Coney Island, the Lower East Side, the Triangle Factory fire, Freud’s trip to America, and plenty of ethnic rivalries.

Paradise Alley (2003): 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2003. In 1863, the National Conscription Act made most able-bodied men eligible to be drafted into Lincoln’s army but exempted those who could afford a $300 fee. One of the worst riots in U.S. history ensued in New York City, composed primarily of Irish-Catholic men.