Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Clarence Olgibee, by Alan Kessler

Two words come to mind when I try to describe Alan Kessler's Clarence Oligbee.  Ambitious, and rambling.  It's the story of race and family, spanning from the 1950s into the 1970s and 1980s.  Clarence Oligbee, an African-American young man living in Ohio, befriends Todd, a white classmate whose liberal parents have moved from Manhattan into Oligbee's middle-class black neighborhood.  As their friendship grows and then falls apart, Kessler explores race in America.

Clarence joins the Navy, and learns that equality is a distant dream.  In spite of his high aptitude scores and heroic deeds, he's stuck shining shoes and serving dinner to white officers.  He learned that "education, intelligence, even heroism, couldn't life a Negro past where a white man thought he should go."  Back in Ohio, Todd fell under the influence of white supremacists with plans to eliminate blacks and Jews from the United States.

Kessler places some interesting insights about race relations during this era in American history.  Clarence gets a preview of racial equality at a college football game, where he witnessed "the color and sound of 100,000 people linking their fate, hopes, and dreams to the actions of eleven young men on a field. . . . There were not black or white people . . . only crimson and gray. . . . Clarence had felt close to God, to a world perfect in its equality where effort, not race, mattered."  However, a white man sitting nearby destroyed his vision: "Maybe someday you'll play here, too!  A big buck running back with a white quarterback for the brains!"  It was a reminder that white people "wanted him to play by their rules."

Religion also plays a role in Clarence's story.  He learns from his mother that church is not about God, but about community.  "There is no divine being listening to the choir sing and the reverend preach. . . . But when we put on Sunday clothes and walk together to church to sit side by side in pews, we are strengthened by a shared spirit."  I wonder how common this sentiment is in the black church.

I said Clarence Olgibee is ambitious and rambling.  Ambitious, in Kessler's scope.  The setting of the story seems to keep growing, as does the impact.  Clarence falls in with some interesting characters in the Philippines, giving him a sense of history larger than himself.  In Ohio, some businessmen expand their impact on history well beyond what I would have expected, even touching the biggest historical events of the era.  All of this is tied together in a rambling style.  The personal connections become a bit mind-boggling after a while.  I didn't quite need a flow chart to keep track of who was related to whom, but the random connections piled up a bit, some in very important ways.

I enjoyed Clarence Olgibee in spite of Kessler's rambling style.  The prose didn't flow all that well throughout, giving it a rough-cut feel.  But the characters are memorable, and the arc of the story keeps it very interesting.

Order here:

Thanks to Mr. Kessler for the complimentary review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with at least 400 pages

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