Ain’t misbehavin’ (well, maybe just a little
if bootleg whiskey is involved) . . .

h1 May 16th, 2007 by jules

In Harlem Summer, Walter Dean Myers’ new novel (Scholastic; March 2007; library copy), we are welcomed into the steamin’ hot New York City borough of Harlem in the summer of 1925. Sixteen-year-old Mark Purvis just wants to land a record contract and play his sax in a hot jazz band. But when his family’s land down South is sold for back taxes, it’s Mark who is expected to get a job and contribute to the family’s income. His “snooty” Aunt Carolyn (whose “lips stuck out like she was holding a strawberry in her mouth”) finds him a summer job on 14th Street at The Crisis magazine, who needed “a Bright Young Man to work in its advertising department” for four days (from the chapter entitled “How the Ruination of My Whole Summer Started and I Began to Be a New Negro When I Wasn’t Really Through Being the Old Negro I Used to Be” — and, yes, all the chapter titles are that wonderfully long-winded). The Crisis magazine was founded in 1910, published by the then-newly-formed NAACP, and edited by the civil rights leader, poet, scholar, educator, and sociologist Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, who — along with many other well-known figures of The Harlem Renaissance — appears in this novel.

Dr. W.E.B. DuBoisEthel WatersLangston HughesMiss Fauset, Mark’s immediate supervisor, explains to him that the folks at the magazine represent what is being called the New Negro: “Dr. DuBois has said that the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional people.” Mark is baffled and simply bummed that he has to wear a jacket and tie to work. Eventually, Mark meets such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Alfred Knopf, A’Lelia Walker, Effie Lee Newsome, Ethel Waters, and DuBois himself. To Mark, “it didn’t seem that exciting . . . I lived in Harlem and I figured that was about as black as you could get without being in Africa.”

'Say up in Harlem at a table for two/There were four of us/Me, your big feet and you' (my favorite Fats Waller lyrics, by far)Mark grows to appreciate the strict, suffer-no-fools Miss Fauset bit by bit: “She had a way of making me feel stupid on the outside and warm on the inside at the same time. I think it had something to do with her being a New Woman.” But it’s Fats Waller who is his idol (“Fats with a sax was what I wanted to be . . . He could swing with anybody, and even bang out some classical music that sounded righteous”), and when Fats’ sixteen-year-old sister, Edie, tells Mark that Fats is looking for two guys to help him load some trucks over in New Jersey or “{s}omething like that,” Mark jumps at the chance and asks his “main man, Uptown Henry Brown” to join in. The truck, carrying bootleg whiskey and owned by gangster Dutch Schultz, eventually disappears and Mark and Henry become the most convenient scapegoats.

Things get a bit more complicated in this entertaining historical novel, as Mark tries his best to repay Schultz by borrowing money from other gangsters, including Stephanie St. Clair, a.k.a. Queenie, who ran an extortion racket and was Schultz’s primary competition for control of the Harlem numbers racket. This is also a coming-of-age novel, Mark primarily struggling to forge his own identity and find his spot on the continuum bookmarked by criminals and intellectuals. Myers crams a lot of historical figures into this briskly-paced novel and orchestrates their mingling with his fictional characters in a seamless manner. And, particularly since he closes the novel with brief biographical notes (“Real People and Places in Harlem Summer“), this would make a fine supplemental novel in any class studying the Harlem Renaissance.

As Publishers Weekly put it in their review, the “story reflects the paradoxically playful yet dangerous atmosphere of the 1920s,” making for a memorable tone throughout the novel (though a slightly jarring, discordant one toward the end). And there’s a great deal of light-hearted humor here, my favorite moment being when Fats shows up “a little tipsy” at a distinguished party at Alfred Knopf’s house. After he sits down at the piano, “a fat woman asked him if he could write songs . . . ‘I understand that Negroes are so inventive!’ she said.” Telling her that he’ll write a song about her, he asks her to turn around “so I can see you good,” singing: “‘All that meat in your caboose / I just hope it don’t come loose / ‘Cause if it did I’d surely have to run . . .'” Needless to say, Miss Fauset is upset, telling Mark the next day that Fats insulted the wife of one of the NAACP’s biggest contributors. Later, when Mark and his friend audition for Black Swan Records, Mark finally sees beyond both the larger-than-life Fats and the imposing intellectuals: “All the time I thought the New Negro was just writing poems and being la-de-da and all of a sudden I was seeing some jazz dudes who acted all serious.”

And, fortunately for the reader, Mark doesn’t have some forced eye-opening epiphany at the end of his journey; he knows instead that the quest to shape his own identity has really just begun:

Miss Faucet was always talking about the New Negro, but I was seeing that there were a whole lot of different kinds of people in the world. The thing was they were all so different. There were people like Miss Fauset and Dr. DuBois and Miss Newsome, dealing with the magazine and stories and poems; then there were people like Dutch and Bumpy and Queenie, who were doing a whole different kind of thing and liking what they were doing. Then there were my parents . . . who were just pushing from day to day and hoping for a better life down the line. And there was Fats, having a good old time every day and not minding what kind of trouble he got into, and Langston Hughes, who probably never got into trouble and was having a good time writing his poems. With so many kinds of people around I didn’t know how anyone could make a decision as to which one they wanted to be. The thing was, there might even be people somewhere living in a way that I would like even better, and I just hadn’t met them yet.

Mark just knows — in the end — that he wants to be in Harlem, “around the music and all the people.” His unforgettable roadtrip to that discovery is one you will want to take with him. And with Fats as a secondary character, enjoy the soundtrack in your mind while you read . . .

3 comments to “Ain’t misbehavin’ (well, maybe just a little
if bootleg whiskey is involved) . . .”

  1. I read and enjoyed the book very much and that Fats Waller video at the end of your excellent review is a perfect coda.

  2. Thanks, Monica. And, yes, it really was an enjoyable read. I thought the character of Mark had a distinct, unforgettable voice.

  3. If only all books came with a bonus CD.

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