I happened across Brown at the library, and I checked it out because Richard Rodriguez mentioned James Baldwin as an influence. Oh, Richard Rodriguez. You know the way to my heart.
When one has picked up a book on account of its having been influenced by someone one loves and admires, it is best not to think about it too much. Think about it too much, and Rodriguez inevitably comes off the worst, as would almost any essayist if you stacked him up next to Baldwin.
At times, Rodriguez is beautifully evocative. Some passages are gorgeous: “Her eyes are needles, I am the camel”; some are wonderfully thoughtful and funny:
Who would approve an opposite tale [to Lawrence of Arabia]? It was one thing for a hipless Englishman to play the swarthy pirate. The reverse would have been impossible to praise or to admire. Much less to film. No British director would film, in Cinemascope, Rodriguez of the Reading Room! I was experimenting with impersonation.
At the same time, Rodriguez (the aforementioned Rodriguez of the Reading Room) slips away from any serious degree of self-revelation, only giving himself away in small moments like the above. It’s as if he’s trying to maintain plausible deniability in case anything he says should get used against him later: a strange reading experience in a work of biographical essay (or, I suppose, memoir?). Or erhaps it’s exactly what Rodriguez is aiming for: to appear as un-pin-down-able as he claims brownness is to America, a country where the racial conversation maintains a laser-focus on relations between and among black and white.
When Rodriguez pauses for specificity, his insights can be excellent:
On the bus, the teenager and I sit so tightly packed our thighs touch. And yet we are transported as though separately, invisibly. I owe my solitude to Johannes Gutenberg (well, as does my seatmate; the Walkman is an extenuation of the book).
One does not relinquish one’s identity for the duration of a ride on the [public bus], but one does allow one’s purpose to slip its leash, to merge with the idea of civic order, which in this case is the idea of arriving safely at one’s destination. Those who insist upon their identities, even on the 38 Geary, are cautiously regarded by other passengers are potentially dangerous.
But these pauses are rare, and the book as a whole seemed like an illusive/allusive/elusive synthesis of the idea of being brown in America. When Rodriguez comes out with something definite I’m interested if not always in agreement. Mainly I just want him to say more! To let the ideas breathe rather than dashing madly away from them and on to the next thing as soon as he sets them up.