Are the 13 short stories in Wanda Coleman’s Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales good enough to make white America reassess black America? To paraphrase a typically wry line from the book’s cop-culture parable “Shark Liver Oil,” Coleman knows she has the power to entertain, but only does so hoping “. . . the consciousness of that other community across town might be raised.” This slender volume of elegant prose does what decades of Jerry Springer and hip-hop have failed to do: reveal painful social truths without promoting human pathology.
An award-winning poet born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Coleman has been “keeping it real” since before gangsta rap changed the meaning and impact of the phrase. Since 1977, she’s produced 19 books, ranging from journalistic essays to collections of verse and fiction. The ideological thread linking these protean efforts is the quest for social justice. But while her essays may call for redress, her poetry and fiction quietly cry for redemption.
Coleman’s avowed fans include Ishmael Reed, whose brilliant early novels set the tone and bar for her best work. Each piece in Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales is ambitiously constructed, tailoring style to content in memorable ways. Unlike Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley, Coleman explores the dark and often dangerous side of L.A. without the contrivance of a mystery to solve. Serious crimes and various misdemeanors elbow their way into her plots and clamor for attention without the glib resolutions or cathartic retribution served up by detective novels. Nor does she normally give her readers a surrogate figure to experience or deflect the pain in her stories; instead, she lures us into a place of emotional bravery where we feel what her characters feel and are compelled to internalize their problems and search for solutions.
This technique isn’t foolproof—one story, “My Brain’s Too Tired to Think,” is less convincing and note-perfect than all the rest. Even so, the piece succeeds on so many other surprising levels that the awkward bits don’t matter. It’s an encounter between two black women: a young psychiatrist and her older, deeply troubled new client. Their “conversation” is as diffuse and hyperbolic as that in My Dinner With Andre, but exponentially more productive. Coleman never exploits black pathology, but she sure knows it when she sees it.
Like New York, Los Angeles has seen successive waves of black migration since its founding, and cultural differences abound between native Angelenos as well as among more recent arrivals. Coleman’s musical ear allows her to capture subtle differences in class, regional origin, self-confidence, and aspiration with every word her characters utter. She reveals the complex inner lives of hipsters and hustlers, actors and addicts, all striving as they struggle with romance, racism, and economics. These portraits are sympathetic but unsentimental, drawn with almost surgical precision to encapsulate problematic aspects of black America’s reality. It’s Coleman’s particular genius to make sense of these puzzle pieces; once she puts them together, they read like a map of psychological trigger points for personal growth and transformation.
In “Pepper,” Coleman explains how the folk superstitions of Southern migrants can transcend intelligence, becoming as hard-wired as basic decency. We learn why the black cabbie of “My Son, My Son”—desperate to make his minimum on Christmas Eve—still can’t bring himself to scam the sweetly senile dowager who hails him. The title story, like several others, features a lonely woman reminding herself exactly how and why her man has gone. “Purgatory” is an ironic first-person journey through a futuristic jail scenario that makes inmates complicit in their own punishment.
A signature element in Coleman’s writing is her deft manipulation of tense and point of view to distort the passage of time. Characters are often trapped in reverie: mesmerized by looped memories of the past or haunted projections into the future. This aura of temporal confusion creates the impression of a bewitched people severed from their proper destiny and thus aimlessly adrift in history. I can’t think of a better analogy for the undeserved lack of forward momentum that periodically afflicts the black community.
It’s not easy to read this book in one sitting; such a broad, meticulous overview of the source of the blues can be hard to take. All but five of these stories were previously published in literary magazines, where they could be read in comfortable isolation from one another. Together, they tend to overwhelm, breeching our comfort zones with staggering amounts of panic-laced information wedged into each carefully crafted line. While we’re somewhat inured to “crisis reporting'” from TV news and daily tabloids, Coleman’s fiction somehow blasts through jaded mental filters like a grenade. Although she veils her truth in fiction, Coleman is one reporter whose passion and rigor can’t be ignored. If knowledge is power, the wattage she channels into these 13 fables should incinerate a forest of indifference.