by Paul Buhle
Communion, by Mel Donalson. Los Angeles: WingSpan Publishing, 2012. ISBN 13: 978-1595944535, paperback, 494 pp, $24.95.
(Swans - March 25, 2013) This is a remarkable work, plunging us into modern Los Angeles where the underclass, notably the young, minority underclass here, lives badly in every sense. The author is a Cal State English professor, a notable film scholar, poet, screen writer, and politically progressive Christian who believes deeply in community involvement, and knows wherefrom he writes. He also writes very, very well.
The field of African-American literature is large and diverse, but it seems to me that Walter Mosley has shown a way forward to a wide audience in his detective novels and others (I am channeling Fortunate Son, which likewise deals with troubled black and white youth in Los Angeles), a way forward ably continued by Donalson. Reading Communion, we find hope here and there, although not much more than a troubled communion -- as in real life.
The scene is frequently dystopian, but this is not argument against the novel. When two of the protagonists, both gay and struggling (sometimes hustling), come across a homeless man beaten, one remarks to the other, more in determination than certainty, "We're not homeless... And people do care about us." True, but they are at the margins, ready to fall off with the least stroke of bad luck or of bad decisions on their part.
"There is no river in Riverside," as a quoted song lyric begins, and this locates much of the action in the Inland Kingdom, away from the assorted promises (fame, fortune) of Los Angeles, back at the trailer trash zone. Here, teachers and health workers struggle, often without success, to hold onto the troubled highschoolers. Here, shoplifting at malls is high experience if not high finance by a long stretch.
Protagonist Tony's mother leaves town with a new husband, a rightwing Christian with no tolerance for perceived deviance. Tony and his friends have plenty of trouble but also help various other youngsters along the way, gaining little or nothing for themselves in return. They are helped by a most unusual woman whose behavior and relationship to men some years younger than her rings the bell with my own bohemian experiences of the early 1960s. She has a steady job, if not a career. Life and love have both let her down. She gathers around her a small circle of young men, and the occasional woman, in a kindly fashion, presuming, we think, of providing a space for drinking to be kindly (they would, after all, be drinking somewhere else less safe). She is no sexual predator, quite the opposite: sex seems to be of no particular interest to her. In so doing, she makes herself the center of something like a near-adulatory social group. To become a lover with any of them on a steady basis would spoil the group, and not only for herself; but so would the expulsion of any for the bad behavior that goes with their situation. And so they struggle on.
In a valuable Afterword, Donalson reveals that he means to have created a heavily-layered work, "with the religious paradigm serving as a skeleton." That is, a spiritual format offering a kind of deep content, with error, sin, and the potential for redemption all present. The religious take on his characters is emphasized in Donalson's treatment of resistance to heterosexual norms. As he says, "there is no one way to be a man or to be a woman." Bias or bullying brings out the worst our species has to offer, but we can do better. As race and ethnic changes sweep over the nation with great speed (California in particular) and violence accelerates at almost every level, this is a vital message to hear.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)