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New York. 1988. Thunder's Mouth Press. Uncorrected Proofs. Very Good In Wrappers. 347 pages. paperback. ISBN: 0938410598. inventory # 19295. FROM THE PUBLISHER-This long-overdue collection/anthology of the late Henry Dumas's powerful fiction (praised by The New York Times as ‘rich, talented and original') brings together for the first time a broad selection of works, whose penetrating force, humor and savage clarity make vivid the richness of the black experience in America. These pieces, whose settings range from impoverished rural Arkansas to the explosive Harlem of the sixties, treat with courage and honesty the tensions between blacks and whites, from North to South; yet Dumas's expansive breath of vision extends beyond racial hostilities to encompass universal conflicts – between man and nature, justice and injustice, love and hatred, good and evil. Among the stories in this collection that depict smoldering anger that sparks and blazes into violence, the grimly prophetic ‘Harlem' stands out. Here, Dumas, who was killed in 1968 by a New York City policeman under still-unexplained circumstances, describes a black man watching the neighborhood boil over, even small children ‘infected by the strange malady of hate and boredom, ' as a police riot squad closes in on a crowd maddened by an attack on a black youth in an inexorable escalation of violence. Man and nature collide in an excerpt from Dumas's haunting (only) novel, JONOAH AND THE GREEN STONE. Young John is orphaned and set adrift in a large flat-bottomed skiff when the Mississippi crosses the mudline and climbs over the levee, sweeping away people, animals, homes, crops. Adopted by the Mastersons, a family also dispossessed by the flood, John is rechristened ‘Jonoah', because his boat has saved them all from the deluge. When a white man they rescue threatens Jonoah's newfound family, the boy learns the difference between the mortal danger of the river and the moral danger of human malice. In the never-before-published title story ‘Goodbye, Sweetwater, ' menace hovers over Sulfur Springs, Arkansas, reduced to a wasteland by a nearby factory. There, sixteen-year-old Layton Bridges, watches the trains pass from his perch in a chinaberry tree in his grandmother's yard and dreams of rejoining his mother in New York. A tense encounter with a local white man uncovers resentments that challenge his impending manhood. Praised as a writer ‘of both the mind and the flesh. a master at the reins. ' Henry Dumas created a literature at once authentic in its depiction of human joy and despair and suggestive of the larger mysteries of life. In these stories, men, women and children endure poverty, violence and humiliation, but sustained by love and hope, they persist in a triumph of human dignity. The ultimate power of this vision, borne upon the lyric precision of his prose, should bring wide recognition to the masterful fiction of Henry Dumas..
Henry Dumas' fiction and poetry deserve the same kind of readership and revival that Zora Neale Hurston's novels have gotten. Dumas's oeuvre is slighter, because tragically at the age of thirty-three he was shot and killed by a policeman in a subway station in New York in 1968. Goodbye, Sweetwater is a collection of his stories and includes an excerpt from his novel Jonoah and the Green Stone.
Like Hurston, Dumas incorporated African American folkways into both his fiction and poetry, and the incantatory rhythms of blues and gospel, as well as surrealist techniques of distortion and heightening. Befitting a poet, his stories have the greater concision, while the novel excerpt feels a bit like an unfinished allegory as its title suggests.
Here is Toni Morrison: "A cult has grown up around Henry Dumas--a very deserved cult. . .(H)e had written some of the most beautiful, profound and moving poetry and fiction that I have ever read." The reader might also seek out Play Ebony Play Ivory, a collection of Dumas' poetry republished by Random House. In the midst of America's racial nightmare, Henry Dumas managed to remain free of ideological cant. He was a true artist.
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