John Edgar Wideman’s novel A Glance Away.

A Glance Away

The Novel
“It is after all a way of beginning.” So opens John Edgar Wideman’s novel A Glance Away. Centering on Eddie Lawson, a young black man wracked by his inadequacies as a son, a brother, and a lover, the novel tells the story of one day in his life. On an Easter Sunday,
Eddie returns home—having spent a year in a voluntary drug rehabilitation clinic—only to learn, as have innumerable other protagonists of modern fiction, that you cannot go home again. In the course of this fateful day, a day symbolic of renewal, Eddie encounters the death of his old love affair, the death of his mother, and the ossification of his drive to break free from his past and imagine a new life for himself. As his story unfolds, Eddie’s torments converge with those of Robert Thurley, a white literature professor whose own alienation from life has led him into the dark world of homosexuality. Briefly acquainted with Eddie through his liaison with Eddie’s albino friend, Brother, Thurley is attracted to the younger man’s intensity, and, in the closing scene of the novel—which consists of the disjointed thoughts of the three men as they sit staring into a large campfire—finds new purpose in his life through the fantasy that he can save Eddie from the cruel stings of moral existence.
As the succession of events in the book reveal, Wideman’s opening emphasis on beginning is crucial to Eddie’s story. Eddie (as well as Thurley) is trying to make a new beginning against great odds. After spending a year in a clinic trying to kick a drug habit, Eddie returns to his hometown, where he is marked as a troublemaker. The book’s prologue focuses on his struggle to reenter his family, whose members, dead and living, are thus introduced: his grandfather, DaddyGene, a soul mate for Eddie; his grandmother, Freeda; his
mother, Martha, who appears in the prologue as a young woman giving birth to Eddie’s older brother,
Eugene; his father, Clarence, whose absence rather than his presence is more vivid in Eddie’s memory. It is
Eugene’s birth, however, not Eddie’s, that has priority within the prologue’s imaginative history of the
family. Thus, Eddie’s life is in part shaped by the futile desire to live up to the ideal image of Eugene, who, at
the time of Eddie’s return, has been dead for a long time. Despite the prologue’s emphasis upon birth, its
outcome, and the outcome of Eddie’s beginnings, is death—Eugene’s death in the war; the death of
DaddyGene, which transpires at the prologue’s end; and ultimately the death within the novel of the urge to
envision a new life for Eddie beyond the events of the day that circumscribes his story.
In its largest dimensions, then, the novel narrates a stillbirth, a failure to complete the potential for growth
implicit in its beginning. That failure, moreover, is built into the book’s attitude toward life. Its “way of
beginning” emerges as the moral condition, evident in all the characters, of “never hav[ing] quite enough so
hunger grows faster than appetites and satisfaction never comes.” The hunger or emptiness in life comes to
dominate the drive of life to fulfill itself—whether that drive is expressed through Eddie’s urge to complete
himself in Alice physically or in reunion with his family, whether through Thurley’s urge to intellectually
unite first with Al and then with Eddie, or whether through Brother’s moral urge, suggested in his nickname,
to unite with Eddie and Thurley in a kind of spiritual brotherhood in the novel’s last scene.
Nor is the moral hunger obvious in the three central figures, as well as in those who appear peripherally,
limited to the novel’s characters. In its style—a kind of de-streamed consciousness—time and place are
obscured. Action, hindered by the fragmented flashbacks of numerous characters, proves futile, and narrative
A Glance Away 1
completion literally never comes. The last “sentence,” a rendering of Brother’s rambling, unpunctuated
consciousness, articulates his desire to “put my hand in” and “go to smoke and see how high. . . .” Thus, the
novel concludes in the inconclusive ellipsis of his unfinished thought. Yet rather than escape life or its
frustrations and uncertainties, Brother, Eddie, and Thurley witness separately in the raging fire the
transforming energies that escape them and that ultimately escape the novel’s vision.
The Characters
Like the nameless narrator-hero of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Eddie Lawson is a man who
attempts to complete himself through language. He returns home to his mother and sister because he feels “at
last . . . I have something to tell you.” Filled with a sense of the truth of life, Eddie longs to share this truth,
which he defines as a need for something outside oneself, with the people he loves. Eddie’s urge to speak
himself, to articulate his inner life, however, is countered by his inbred fear of change. That this quality is
crucial to Eddie’s character is evident in his wish to transform time into “the space between a glance away
and back”; not only does this notion reveal Eddie’s fear of the medium of change, time, but also it serves as
the title for his story. Eddie’s desire to spatialize time and render it inactive is paralleled in his intellectual
tendency to analyze his life. He sees himself as two Eddies, one of the day and one of the night; he identifies
most urgently with the dark or shadow Eddie, the one overwhelmed by the excruciating terrors of life. Locked
within his head (both his most prominent physical feature and the realm of his intellectual faculty), Eddie’s
inner life—which seeks articulation in his voice—is unable to “master the first word” or make a beginning at
reaching outside himself. His hope for reunion with his family, with Alice, and within himself thus never
comes, and his last words, “I cannot move. I cannot speak . . .” define his moral stasis.
Attracted initially to the primitive energies sensed in Eddie’s intensity and his blackness, Robert Thurley
comes to feel an aesthetic, intellectual bond with the younger man. Like Eddie, Thurley is burdened by painful
memories of the past—especially his sexual victimization at the hands of his former wife—memories that
endow him with the compulsion to verbalize his particular truth. Also like Eddie, Thurley finds that no one
understands him, least of all the literature students to whom he lectures on the “inimitable circularity” of
tragic drama. It is appropriate that Thurley’s subject is tragedy and that he sees its action as circular, for he,
like Eddie, is entrapped in a tragic vision of life that takes him nowhere. Also like Eddie, Thurley fears
change. Despite his flirtation with life—with what he calls “his night world”— Thurley remains a vicarious
spectator. Only when he has “something to say” to Eddie (a local pool shark’s message that Eddie is a
troublemaker and had better leave town) does Thurley realize he has lived a lie; only then does he attempt to
break through his isolation and make human contact. His urge to act fails, however, doomed by his belief that
completion is only illusory; the will to save Eddie is thus never communicated, never brought into the open.
For all their similarities, Eddie and Thurley are divided in crucial ways. Most important, they are separated by
race. Eddie, in the final scene at the fire, when Thurley is imagining Eddie’s salvation, considers how to rob
the white man and perhaps even kill him. Despite their physical proximity and their moral likeness as
creatures of a dark world, they nevertheless are depicted in black-and-white opposition to one another.
Brother, who, as a common friend, mediates between them, also physically combines black and white in his
image—that of the albino black man. While the outward manifestation of this mingling is ugliness—Brother’s
quintessential feature in the book and that quality which marks him as a victim—inwardly it manifests in his
ability to move with both men and to bring them together. Brother, too, is victimized—by his appearance and
by Eddie’s mother, who distrusts him and sees him as an evil force who has led her son astray. Consequently,
Brother’s attempts at uniting the people around him come to little; in the end, he envisions his immolation in
the fire as a physical dissolution into the rising smoke and out of the world.
The three principal female characters, Martha (Eddie’s mother), Bette (his sister), and Alice (his girlfriend
and Brother’s sister), also suffer from the moral hunger that pervades the men; in addition, they exert an
The Novel 2
emasculating power over the males. Martha, who first appears in the prologue in the throes of childbirth, is
given to waiting for the men in her family to prove their strength as lovers and providers—something they only
do in her imagination once they are dead. Through her disappointment and self-induced martyrdom, she has
become hardened to the needs of her remaining children, Eddie and Bette. Her death—she falls down the stairs
after overhearing Eddie tell Bette to leave the family home—comes as a defiant, guilt-implanting gesture
designed to release her from her suffering at the same time it tightens the emotional noose around the necks of
her children.
Bette, who has spent her young life caring for the ailing Martha, can envision no other life than that of patient
suffering. In this servile attitude, she mirrors her mother and dooms herself to the martyred life. Moreover, she
is marked by having witnessed the deaths, first of her father and then, upon Eddie’s return, of her mother.
Though tormented by these images of death, Bette seems resigned to them—they are her lot in life—while for
Eddie, this fact only heaps further feelings of guilt and impotence upon him as he cannot find the strength to
stay with Bette and help properly dispose of his mother’s body. Alice Small further serves to humiliate Eddie
and frustrate his aspirations toward growth and manhood. Receiving him upon his return home, Alice allows
him to make love to her only to prove that she can treat him like a “charity case” in the same way as did her
white friend, Clara. Alice, in her way, joins Martha in rejecting Eddie’s need for love.
Thurley’s visit with his old friend, Al Levine, functions in somewhat the same way as does Eddie’s return
home. A professor of music, Al is a figure from the darkest moment in Thurley’s past—that in which he, his
wife Eleanor, and Al engaged in a ménage à trois. Rather than perceiving this sexual encounter as a moment
of heightened intensity or mutual caring, Thurley remembers the affair as that instant when Eleanor asserted
her power over him. Victimized by her dominance, Thurley subsequently slid into his night world—the
one-night stands with black boys. Al, unaware that he and Thurley were used by Eleanor, brings this memory
out for Thurley. Al himself, though, has not been destroyed by it: He has created an Easter cantata for
children’s voices, an act that, for him, completes his life and assuages his own sorrows at the same time it
exposes for Thurley the incompleteness of his own.
Themes and Meanings
In its focus upon Eddie’s drive to discover himself through his return to home and family, A Glance Away
extends two of the traditional concerns of black American literature—the theme of masking, living behind a
mask, and the quest for a lost heritage. As a black man in a white world that rejects his individuality and his
manhood, Eddie suffers from the spiritual schizophrenia that comes from wearing a mask—that is, from
appearing to be other than what he is. This malaise possesses Eddie most acutely when he recalls his bus trip
to the drug clinic in the South as a moment when he studied “how to be nothing.” The mask that Eddie wears,
however, is more apparent in his relations with his family. Rather than divide him from the white world,
which does not figure prominently in the story, Eddie’s inner division separates him from his mother and
sister. The Eddie whom they believe they see, he tells Bette, is dead. Eddie, in his idealized social function as
son and brother, does not exist; the man who returns home is the morally pregnant Eddie, the one who wants
to give birth through words to his vision of life and who hopes to have that vision, if not shared, at least heard
and understood. When the mask is stripped away in the final episode—after Eddie has lost his mother, his
sister, and his lover—the creature revealed is not a mature, individuated human being but a spiritually isolated
mind wracked by its inherent discontinuities and, when left to speak itself out, brought to an utter standstill.
The self-conscious voice that exists behind the mask thus reveals its impotence to penetrate life and extricate
Eddie’s imagination, here representative of the black imagination, from its acquiescent victimization.
As it appears in earlier black American literature, the notion of heritage usually refers to the specific longing
for connection with the African past. In A Glance Away, the explicit African connection comes not from
Eddie, but from Thurley. A scholarly and thus implicitly rational man, Thurley seeks the encounter with the
The Characters 3
irrational, which for him vibrates within what he calls (ironically so, since he is referring to graffiti on a
barroom wall) the “sensual purity of African art.” His aesthetic appreciation of the African heritage extends
to the young black man whom he sodomizes and ultimately to Eddie, whose unspecified sensitivity and
vitality entice Thurley into a fanciful intellectual consummation at the end. For Eddie, however, and for the
novel, the inclination toward seeking heritage is directed at the immediate family. The prologue’s story of
Eddie’s forebears initiates this interest, and Eddie’s return home continues it. It is clear, however, from what
transpires during Eddie’s visit, that his heritage cannot embrace what he has become, nor can it save him. In
fact, it rejects—via Martha and Alice—his longings to love and to articulate his inner life.
Critical Context
The novel’s thematic emphasis on identity and family, the failure of identity or family to provide moral
satisfaction for Eddie, not only places Wideman’s story within the traditional thematic concerns of black
American literature but also asserts the black literary story as a special version of the modern existential story.
Bereft of the absolutes and certainties of his heritage, straining, in fact, to escape the agonies endemic to his
past and to actualize his inner spirit via language, Eddie represents a figure of modern man. Moreover, he is
joined, ironically, in his alienation by Thurley, the white and decadent aesthete, and by Brother, the powerless
victim. This disjunctive trinity offers the only completion possible within the narrative, which, shattered into
the fragments of many desperate consciousnesses, cannot find its own source and center and thus cannot
mature the creative urge present in its beginning. The passion for life is there—in Eddie’s intensity, in
Thurley’s romantic hope, in Brother’s fascination with the transmuting powers of the fire, and in
Wideman’s inclination to narrate a birth. What the story ultimately reveals is the obsolescence of the
self-conscious voice, cut off from life by its inherently tragic vision, as an agent of moral growth in the
modern era.
Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Provides a
biographical profile, as well as excerpts from criticism of Wideman’s works.
Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Selinsgrove, Pa.:
Susquehanna University Press, 1995. Mbalia examines a number of Wideman’s works, exploring themes
such as the African personality in Wideman’s writings, the way Wideman portrays women, and the place of
the intellectual in the community. Her analysis offers a good overall view of the issues Wideman deals with in
his writings.
Mumia, Abu-Jamal. “The Fictive Realism of John Edgar Wideman.” Black Scholar 28 (Spring, 1998): 75-79.
Examines the intellectual, social, and racial contexts of Wideman’s writings. Discusses the influence of the
black liberation movement on Wideman as well as on the family. Concludes that Wideman’s novels “speak
to that pervasive sense of estrangement, and the restorative power of the family” and calls Wideman’s work
“a literature of love.” Includes a brief reference to A Glance Away.
Wideman, John Edgar. “Home: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman.” Interview by Jessica Lustig.
African American Review 26 (Fall, 1992): 453-457. Explores the influence of Homewood, Pennsylvania, in
Wideman’s writings. Wideman talks about the quality of life there, the effect urban renewal can have on a
close neighborhood, and the incorporation of the memories of other places he has lived into his portrayal of
Homewood. A good resource for background information.
Wideman, John Edgar, and Bonnie Tusmith. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University
of Mississippi Press, 1998. This collection of interviews by various people, including Ishmael Reed, Kay
Themes and Meanings 4
Bonetti, and Gene Shalit, presents an in-depth portrait of Wideman. Wideman’s discussion of his works is
informative and revealing.

Post a Comment