Book Review

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

there ain't no fool like a holy fool

Oh god, that thing happened where I finished reading a book and then life got in the way of me writing a blog about it so now, a few days later, my memory of it is less fresh, less immediate, than I’d ideally like. I read James Baldwin’s Got Tell It On The Mountain earlier this week, and without any doubt it is one of the most powerful, beautiful and emotionally resonant novels I’ve read in a very long time. As with the other texts by Baldwin that I’ve read, his precision and his ability to evoke deep humanity is evidenced on any and every page, and bar a – to my mind – unnecessary dream sequence towards the end of this, his first, book (lest we forget), this is a near flawless piece of writing: moving, engaging, enveloping and incredibly evocative.

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I climbed a mountain on my bicycle (I cycled up a mountain) on the day I started reading this, and with aching legs and more psychological pain from doing exercise for the first time in ages, I spent the day after relaxing and reading the Baldwin. I was meant to have a job interview that morning, which I turned up to dressed as smartly as I could be (and thus too warmly for the Barcelona heat), but arrived to be told that the staff member I had arranged to meet with was on holiday, as too was anyone else who could interview me in their stead. To be honest, the staff member who I spoke to – an English person – was not at all apologetic, and very much acted as if I was at fault for daring to expect an interview to happen that I had been invited to attend. It pissed me off, but I had a nice wander through an unfamiliar part of the city on the way back to my apartment, and also bought some cheap – but smart – linen trousers, so next time I need to look formal I won’t also be sweaty. Maybe doing a bit more exercise will keep me less sweaty, too. Need to be a bit healthier generally, slimmer, a more positive lifestyle, less minor stress, more stability, a routine – as I’m currently establishing – will sort that. Good, yes.

Go Tell It On The Mountain was published in 1954, and it is set in Harlem (and elsewhere in flashbacks) in the mid 1930s. A 14 year old boy, John, is considering the validity of diving deeply into a fundamentalist religious life, and if he should follow the example of his father, Gabriel, a fiery preacher who is violent towards his children and perhaps has dark secrets from before he found God. Over the course of an evening, we discover the sadness and the regrets in the past of Gabriel, his sister, Flora (who is dying in the present) and Elizabeth, his wife. All characters have secrets and “sins” to confess, all of which are known to some characters and are guessed at by others. Gabriel’s first marriage to the rather boring Deborah was a cynical attempt to crush his own youthful libido, which eventually slipped out into a passionate affair with Esther; Flora had a bad marriage with Frank, a layabout who never got himself together before leaving her for another woman, then the first world war and his death; Elizabeth had a wonderful relationship with Richard, a troubled, hardworking, autodidact who fought against the injustice of discrimination and privilege, until he eventually falls victim to racial profiling and institutionalised brutality from the police. This relationship, and its dramatic and unexpected ending, is heartbreaking, and deeply, deeply moving. Richard’s death is foretold, but not the circumstances, and nor are the reasons for Elizabeth’s sense of having allowed it to happen through not speaking enough, not doing enough.

All of the adult characters in the novel are plagued by memories of their unhappy pasts, while John contemplates the potential for an unhappy future. He watches Elisha (a young man who is quite senior in the congregation and has recently been publicly shamed for being seen, unaccompanied, with a young woman) with an intensity and an interest that borders on the sexual, however this attraction is understated and subtly explored, and perhaps this is just me reading too much of Baldwin’s own life into the text.

There is somewhat of a pessimistic attitude displayed towards relationships generally – though the sex as written between Esther and Gabriel is genuinely erotic, is sexy, is hot, their bond is without love: passion exists within this book, and can only exist outside of the trappings of socially acceptable relationships, i.e. marriage. Deborah is sexless, Elizabeth’s sexuality is much diminished following the death of Richard, Flora and Frank never had more than an erotic bond to keep their marriage functioning. These people, lonely and sad and disappointed by life, focus on faith, on belief, on God and “being good” in order to try and outweigh previous sins. Only Gabriel, really, has any sins that would still be judged harshly, and it is he who is the most vocally and performatively Christian. The church, as depicted by Baldwin, is hypocritical, is corrupt, and belief is pointless – even the sense of community that is traditionally used as the defence of religiosity is depicted as flawed here: the community judges, the community poisons, the community wants its youth to deny their physicality and commit to “marriage” rather than “love”.

Baldwin’s debut novel is beautiful, moving, sad and devastating. I wept several times, pretty intensely, and though I’ve been having a pretty intense week for a variety of reasons, this was a glorious and powerful piece of fiction for me to stick my little face into. Baldwin writes people and place and regret and bodies with real fucking skill. I’m loving his work, I’m gonna keep reading more.

This comes highly highly highly highly highly recommended, Go Tell It On The Mountain is incredible fiction. This is what I go to books for.

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