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There are many ways in which Andrew Lewis Conn’s new novel could have gone wrong. Mixing fact and fiction; combining silent filmmakers with Harlem gangsters, and Jewish Americans with ‘Darkest Africa’; and featuring both straight and gay interracial romances, Conn is walking a very fine line with this book. That he manages to pull it off and O, Africa! works so effectively—being by turns amusing and haunting, serious and sly but ultimately moving—is quite a triumph for its author.
The year is 1928, and the movie business is on the cusp of changes wrought by the success of Al Jolson’s ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer. Twin brothers Micah and Izzy Grand, however, are continuing to turn out silent comedies for Imperial Pictures with their Harold Lloyd-esque star Henry Till when financially strapped studio head Arthur Marblestone offers the brothers what he hopes will be a money-making proposition: a trip to Africa to make a Till comedy on location, and also to film stock footage that can be sold to other studios. The brothers are reluctant at first, but complications as the result of Micah’s affair with his light-skinned African-American assistant, Rose, and his gambling in Harlem with gangster Byron Waldo and his lieutenant Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ (“Don’t call me that”) Johnson, make the trip an expedient thing to do. The gangsters give Micah their script for an historical epic, O, Africa!—the story of black Americans from Africa from the era of slavery through the twentieth century, which the budding screenwriters insist they should also film while on location. Micah convinces Izzy that they could turn O, Africa! into their artistic masterpiece.
Once they arrive on the continent, the brothers and their crew—which includes Rose’s brother Early—live among the Malwiki tribe, and the previously deeply closeted Izzy falls in love with Cri, the tribe’s nineteen year old prince, with whom he begins an open and generally accepted relationship. Izzy considers his fellow moviemakers “a gallery of misfits—a black kid, a Jew fairy, and a circus freak—halfway around the world, pulling levers on the American culture machine.” As it turns out, the filming has unexpected consequences for both the brothers and the tribe. As their leader, King Mishi, warns Izzy, “…by pointing your cine-film machines at the Malwiki, you claimed us…do you not recognize how the Malwiki will be left so very different from how you found us? How with this invention you slip the lock of time, how with this device you remake yourself as a god? That is not a crime…it’s a sin. Do you understand?”
O, Africa! is filled with improbable, slightly outrageous characters, like the brothers’ assistant, the dwarf Oscar Spiro, who also turns out to be a wrestling champ. At times, the author’s symbolism becomes a bit much, as when the closeted Izzy first appears in the novel, surreptitiously filming a scene at Coney Island from inside a box. Arthur Marblestone, talking about The Jazz Singer, says, “We’re telling stories to each other we don’t even see what they mean.” It is as if in his second novel, Conn wants to make sure his readers are quite clear on what he means.
Brother Micah’s ‘fascination’ with African-Americans could have been cringe-inducing, but Conn manages to convey how complex and double-edged these feelings are in the character. Incorrigible playboy Micah’s feelings for Rose are genuine, but he can also be weak and condescending when it comes to those who ‘fascinate’ him:
Micah thought about black people a lot. How they lived in secret, out in the open. How they were pulling and shaping the country, creating an entire shadow culture like an undertow sculpting the shoreline. How each encounter with a colored person almost always marked a silent occasion of curiosity, bafflement, and shame. But these feelings were only inklings, campfire embers. Micah didn’t have the language, the politics, or the will to explore them. And, professionally, he had indulged in the worst of it too, shooting a two-reeler a couple of years before called Scaredy Spooks, a fright comedy with blacked-up actors, tar-faced servants, knee-clattering darkies, and a chorus of slow-moving pickaninnies. Micah had been forbidden from using colored actors, instead casting tall, aquiline-nosed Avery Parkinson in the role of the head butler, his face all but immobilized under a half inch of greasepaint and burnt cork.
Historical figures like Babe Ruth move in and out of the story, echoing E. L. Doctorow’s masterpiece Ragtime, as do a number of tropes from the work of Thomas Pynchon, from names (Arthur Bloat, for instance) to pastiches of period songs. Winks and nods are made to movies of various eras, from the original King Kong to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Peeping Tom. Yet, the novel is more than just an exercise in clever postmodern irony. What makes O, Africa! so compelling are the cool, clear, quick-moving quality of Conn’s writing and the author’s sensitivity and insight into his characters. Conn is very careful to make them rounded, flawed and deeper than they first appear on the surface. He also, blessedly, doesn’t treat the Africans as stereotypes, despite their ultimately tragic encounter with the brothers and Hollywood. Moving deftly from Coney Island to Africa to the first-ever Academy Award ceremony and back, O, Africa! is an engrossing and thought-provoking novel about self-discovery and the occasionally dangerous power of the movies.
By Andrew Lewis Conn
Hardcover, 9780804138284, 384 pp.