Fathers and Sons
A FATHER'S LAW
By Richard Wright
Harper Perennial. 268 pp. Paperback, $14.95
Reviewed by W. Ralph Eubanks
Sunday, January 13, 2008; BW06
Posthumously released novels are published with great fanfare, but rarely live up to the hype or readers' expectations. On the surface, they seem to be packaged events for literary and cultural historians to dissect, rather than works of literature to be enjoyed.
Happily, Richard Wright's A Father's Law, which is being published for the first time on the centennial of his birth, is not just a book for critical theorists, nor is it a book that disappoints. Like Native Son, Black Boy and Uncle Tom's Children, A Father's Law explores the inner conflicts and challenges faced by black Americans as they make their way through a society dominated by white privilege. 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.
The main character is Rudolph "Ruddy" Turner, a captain in the Chicago police force who plans to retire in a matter of months. Ruddy is black, Roman Catholic and Republican, all outward signs that he has made it. "His neighbors were white," Wright writes. "He did not have to fear hoodlums loitering about his premises. He had at once, as soon as he had purchased his property, joined the neighborhood protective association to guard the interests of all who owned property in the area, and he had been accepted with enthusiasm." His wife, Agnes, is devoted and dutiful.
The source of strain and anxiety in Ruddy's life is his 19-year-old son, Tommy, a sociology student at the University of Chicago. Tommy behaves in a detached manner and speaks of his academic work in a way that makes Ruddy feel inferior; the constant pounding of his typewriter keys as he writes research papers serves as a reminder of the distance between the two men.
When the novel opens, Ruddy is awakened by a late night call from police headquarters, requesting that he meet with the commissioner immediately. Ruddy leaves home hastily, his wife worried and his son typing furiously, a sound that only amplifies Ruddy's anxiety. When he arrives at the office, Ruddy learns that he is being named chief of police of Brentwood Park, a suburban community filled with rich and powerful whites where the police chief has recently been slain and the community is in turmoil over a series of mysterious murders and sex crimes.
At first, Ruddy resists: "I'm colored . . . and I will be the first." He also thinks of his retirement, particularly the time away from day-to-day work that would allow him to get to know his son better. But he accepts the position, wrestling with the shock of what is happening to him.
What Wright seeks to create in the chapters that follow is a psychological thriller, yet there aren't sufficient plot twists and turns for the book to work purely within that genre. However, A Father's Law succeeds in its prescient examination of the generational and class conflicts that await black Americans as they move from the margins of society into the cultural mainstream. Judging from the way the conversations and interactions between Ruddy and Tommy take place, it's clear that Wright viewed the distance between the two as symbolic of how black progress would separate one generation from another.
Of course, a black police chief in suburban Chicago would have been a stretch in 1960, but as Wright wrote this book from Paris (where he died at the age of 52 later that year), he must have sensed some change afoot in his native land. How better to capture that than by putting a black man in charge of a police department in a white suburb, overseeing the work of white subordinates?
In the same vein, Ruddy and Tommy Turner represent opposite parts of a cultural divide that I believe Wright saw coming. To bridge the divide, Ruddy enlists Tommy's help to guide him through the sociology of the town where he will be police chief. This entreaty serves more to separate the two men than to bring them together.
With its various subtexts, A Father's Law has the potential to resonate with readers, particularly as Americans ponder the broadening gap between the values of middle class and poor blacks. Of course, A Father's Law would have had even more impact if Wright's life had not been cut short and he had had the time to tie up the story more tightly. Nonetheless, we can be grateful for what he left behind and for what this book gives us to contemplate.
Copyright 2008 The Washington Post