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Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain - James Baldwin But I don’t care how many times you change your ways, what’s in you is in you, and it’s got to come out

I know why this book sat on my shelf for so long. I read Giovanni’s Room several years ago, and while I loved James Baldwin’s writing, I really did not care for the story, particularly the way it ended. I’ve picked up Go Tell It on the Mountain several times when looking for my next read, and each time, I put it away, never quite in the right mood for this book that felt too heavy with expectation and history, like a book I should read more than a book I wanted to read, much like another recent read from my backlog, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.

Being the oldest son, John has long been expected by everyone to become a preacher like his father Gabriel, yet he’s still waiting for a sign that it’s his true calling. He goes to a storefront church Harlem with his family, and he pays attention and tries to be good, unlike his rebellious younger brother, who comes home one Friday night, slashed across the face in a knife fight. The pious, stern Gabriel blames his wife for Roy’s troubles, but she defends herself while Gabriel’s sister reminds him of his own shortcomings. The tension bursts when Gabriel slaps Elizabeth, and shortly after, John heads to church to clean up before the night’s informal prayer service. Over the course of the evening, the three adults think back on their personal and shared histories, while John prays for faith and direction. 

Baldwin’s other-worldly way with words is already on display in this first novel, and I was fully engaged for the first two sections before it all went pear-shaped, the characters swept up suddenly in religious experience that contradicts everything up to that point and descends into a madness of inscrutable narration. Once again, I’d allowed myself to be drawn in by Baldwin’s powerful language only to be let down by ending that I just didn’t buy. 

I’ve had a similar issue with a few other writers. Paul Monette’s fiction writing was stiff and mannered, but his brilliant autobiography practically saved my life when I was coming out after college. I’ve tried and failed multiple times to get through Infinite Jest, but I love David Foster Wallace’s essays, particularly his writings on tennis. And with Baldwin, I get the feeling he doesn’t like any of his fictional characters enough to care about what happens to them, good or bad, so they end up feeling more like props. His nonfiction doesn’t suffer from the same issue and benefits even more from his thunderous writing style. Not all great writers are great fictional storytellers, and that’s ok. I’ll stick with Baldwin’s nonfiction, but I’ll need a bit of a break to recover from this one.

(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)