A Bad Review


Darryl Pinckney recalls when, as a young writer on the make, he trashed a book by James Baldwin, one of his literary heroes – and then encountered the man himself:

Just Above My Head is a sprawling saga about a black gay gospel singer and his family. I am embarrassed more than three decades later by the knowingness of that review, from the typewriter of Mr. Little Shit. I was young, Baldwin was young no longer, and therefore I had his number. I eased scorn on what I saw as his sentimental portrayal of a gay couple. Because the two men in Baldwin’s novel consider themselves married, I accused him of having them imitate heterosexual behavior. He’d given up on sexual liberation, I said. Mary McCarthy advises that a good way to get started as a writer is to publish reviews. I was going about the business of trying to become a writer, willing to do so at the expense of this tender, brave, and brilliant soul.

A few years later at a party for Baldwin after he read his blues poems at the 92nd Street Y, I, drunk, asked—yes, asked—if he’d seen that review. He graciously said no and I’m afraid I can’t pretend that I did not in a seizure of self-importance rehearse some of my arguments against his book right there, in the middle of a cocktail party for him, this adored figure. His smile was all forbearance and understanding. He had my number.

(Photo of James Baldwin in 1969 by Allan Warren, via Wikimedia Commons)