If you had to come up with one word to describe Thomas Glave’s debut story collection, Whose Song?, you might look to the vernacular of one of his talkative, sharp-tongued African American characters: fierce. Glave—winner of a 1997 O. Henry Award for his story “The Final Inning” (included here) and a Village Voice Writer on the Verge—is not a timid writer. Whose Song? is shot through with stunning violence, both physical and emotional. Two stories, “A Real Place” and “The Pit,” are set on a nameless Caribbean island where death squads enforce a reign of terror, and both contain scenes of graphic torture almost too painful to read. In “Flying,” an upwardly mobile businessman trapped in an empty marriage experiences the unrestrained fury of his alcoholic wife, while in “Commitment,” a young Southern boy is forced by his shotgun-wielding daddy to give up a male lover and marry the girl he’s gotten pregnant.
Think of Glave as an unlikely cross between loquacious James Baldwin and streetwise Sapphire. The writing vacillates between staccato bursts of prose and windy, convoluted sentences that threaten to collapse under their own weight; this man writes like someone in a fugue state. (At the end of the opening story, “Accidents,” the narrator in fact goes mad, and the author follows him in a disorienting swirl of words.) It’s a bravura performance, to be sure, but the reader is apt to get lost in the dense stylistic thicket. Consider, for example, one humdinger of a sentence from “Flying.” It runs through 177 words, 11 commas, four parentheses, one colon, one semicolon. There may not be a law against a sentence like that, but it probably ought to be pulled over for reckless endangerment.
Where he reins in his prodigal tendencies, Glave is more successful, and his characters emerge vivid, complicated, and real. Perhaps the sharpest story here is “—And Love Them?,” narrated by a white woman who is not, repeat, not racist, but still so terribly frustrated by her efforts to sympathize with and understand “them.” The story is taut and psychological and turns on the acute irony that the narrator herself once had a brief affair with a black man. Whose Song? is full of such deftly drawn characters; if only Glave would stop showing off and give his writing over to them.