I love Hilton Als. He’s one of my favorite writers. His stream of conscious style is academic and conversational and literary and cool/calm/complicated. It’s great.
This book is all about the life of who he calls “the Negress”–a kind of black woman who, in different ways, is “a romantic wedded to despair.” It’s broken up in three parts–the first and longest section is mostly about his mother (with a great section on Malcolm X’s mother), another is about Dorothy Dean, and the last one is about him and his first lover (an older guy he dealt with from ages 15-19). The narration flows from person to person, idea to idea. He sees so much of himself in his mother and sisters, he muses about how friendships between straight women and gay men are about that same reflection (both unwanted by some straight guy), and so forth.
What he does best is invent genuine feelings for people. Like the stuff he does with Malcolm X’s mother is mad inventive. He takes the few lines from the Malcolm X biography that are about her (the opening scene with people showing up to kill her husband while she was pregnant, Malcolm X imagining that her father must have raped her mother since he was white, being in the psych ward later in life after Malcolm X blew up) and reads them in a way that humanizes her. Als completely pulls her out of the narrative and wonders how she might have felt during those moments and throughout her life. How would she have written the opening scene if someone handed her a pen? Did she ever read the book? Did she see herself in it?