Chapter 44: “Elbow Room” by James Alan McPherson (1978)

“I think that love must be the ability to suspend one’s intelligence for the sake of something. At the basis of love therefore must live imagination.”

ElbowRoomWelp. I did it. I managed to squeeze in another book before I started my new job in Evanston, James Alan McPherson’s 1978 Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories, Elbow Room. After finishing Middlesex, I wasn’t sure which way to turn, but I knew I wanted to pick a book that won the Prize before 1980, and I knew I wanted it to be relatively short so that I could finish it in a relatively short amount of time. Those were my only two requirements. I was just hoping against hope that I’d like the book.

I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that I almost couldn’t stand the book.

It’s not that it’s a bad book or anything; it’s not even that it’s written poorly – okay, maybe it is that. The thing about was that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the stories in this collection. I’ll confess, there were two or three that I didn’t mind – that were okay. But the rest of them? I had no idea what I was reading or why I was reading it. Forget the fact that how this collection managed to win the highest literary award in the United States in 1978 is completely beyond me; I’m not even sure what the stories were about most of the time.

Honestly – after a while, it was just a matter of reading words on a page. I had no emotional or psychological connection (or even a reaction, for that matter) with this book. The back of my copy of this book heralded Elbow Room as a remarkable glimpse into the friction between black and white America, the stories in this book were dubbed as a raw, unapologetic look at what it meant to be black in America in the 1970’s. The characters, according to the back of the book, were supposed to captivate me. But they didn’t. Most of the time, I honestly couldn’t have cared less about them.

This all sounds really harsh, and I don’t necessarily mean it to be. I’ll take a step back and say that, as a whole, the book is mostly well-written. There are some really interesting bits of dialogue, some really interesting plot set-ups, but it just doesn’t seem like McPherson was able to connect his characters with the plot of the story they were in, or with each other; as a result, I just wasn’t able to connect with them or the stories.

Of course, there were exceptions to this.

For instance, I enjoyed the story “The Faithful,” about a barber/preacher who won’t adjust to changing times. This story is, by far, the book’s most straightforward selection. I also enjoyed “Just Enough for the City,” which was a really interesting look at an agnostic’s view of the religious people he interacts with. The titled story, “Elbow Room,” offers a really interesting look at the hope of black/white integration by, instead of zooming in on a character, panning out. This was the one story where an inability to connect with the characters actually worked to McPherson’s benefit.

And who knows – maybe I just didn’t get the point of Elbow Room. I’m humble enough to admit that this may very well have been the case.

But, in my opinion, if you’re looking for a novel that is true depiction of black and white America, this is not the book to turn to. If you’re looking for a great collection of short stories, I probably wouldn’t even recommend this one. I’ll say this much for it – it’s an interesting piece of writing. I won’t go so far as to say it’s good writing, or even that it’s bad writing – but I’ll really go out on a limb and say that it’s, at the very least, interesting. This isn’t one that should be avoided at all costs, but I can’t in good conscience recommend you to go out and buy it today. If you see this book laying around some dusty library, and you have absolutely nothing else to read and absolutely nothing else to do, then, by all means, give it a glance.

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