By Eric Goodman
University of Nebraska Press. 288 pages. $18.95.
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Reviewed by John Shortino
Within the first few pages of Twelfth and Race, Eric Goodman introduces many of his novel's major themes: racial tension, family secrets, parental abandonment, and the loss of identity.
As the book opens, Lorraine, a young mother, leaves her family and mixed-race son, driven away in part by their rejection of her Puerto Rican boyfriend. Her son, Richard, grows up to have his identity stolen. This theft propels the first half of the novel, as Richard Allan Gordon, now a 30-year-old advertising executive in the fictional Calhoun City, Miss., meets Tisha Nelson, a black nursing student and the mother of Jada, a child with Richard's last name.
It's a convoluted setup, but Goodman efficiently and believably maneuvers these characters as they begin a relationship fraught with issues of race and class. For the first half of the novel, Goodman keeps the narrative close to Richie. Unaware of his Puerto Rican heritage, he believes he is white and Jewish, and he has no memory of Lorraine. The gradual revelation of his heritage provides a lasting sense of tension as Richie must first come to terms with his parentage, and eventually with his own racial background.
As his relationship with Tisha develops, Richie begins to question his own prejudices and beliefs, and through his interior monologue Goodman deftly explores the conflict between Richie's experiences dating a black woman and the racist thoughts that occasionally enter his head. Even at his happiest moments, a nagging voice enters Richie's consciousness to say things like, "That's what she likes about you, what you can buy her" or "She's not just happy, she's lucky to have a free meal."
Through the first half of the novel, these asides, along with Goodman's use of vernacular ("sistah" and "hongry" make frequent appearances) tend to be troubling, and there is a sense that Goodman intends them to be. Just as Richie is forced constantly to evaluate his beliefs and actions, the reader is frequently asked to make judgments about the characters and stylistic choices.
In a scene near the end of the novel's first half, when Richie and Tisha exchange racial slurs, Twelfth and Race turns its characters' questions back on the reader. Instead of having Richie wonder what constitutes racism, Goodman fills the page with derogatory terms spoken by the characters, raising questions of racism and whether the novel is going too far.
The second half of the book brings a major tonal shift, along with a profusion of other voices. As Calhoun City deals with the aftermath of police violence and escalating race riots, the novel expands to include Lorraine, reunited with Richie and trying to atone for her past; and Reece, Jada's father and the man who initially stole Richie's identity. These characters widen the novel's scope beyond Richie and Tisha's relationship and into much larger social and familial issues.
Through Reece, Twelfth and Race explores the difficult social position of a young black man in a racially stratified city, and at times this makes him one of the more interesting characters in the novel. While Richie struggles with his own sense of race and how it affects his relationship with Tisha, Reece must face a social structure and police situation that are constantly stacked against him.
In one of the novel's strongest scenes, Reece's life is threatened by two police officers - one white, one black - as he walks home from visiting his daughter. Again, the novel turns the character's thoughts to the reader: "If he killed someone . . . who could blame him?"
Among so many voices added in the second half, there is one notable absence: While Goodman characterizes Tisha through several other characters, there is no point in the book where the reader is allowed to see her inner thoughts or concerns. We know her only through the descriptions of the other characters, and while this is effective at times, her lack of a distinct voice in the novel's second half prevents her from becoming a fully realized character.
The final chapters of Twelfth and Race are the most problematic, as the themes that Goodman threads throughout the early parts of the novel come to the surface: Richie and Tisha's relationship must contend with the escalation of the race riots, along with the presence of Reece and Lorraine, both attempting to reconcile with their children. There is also a subplot about a minor character's infidelity, which seems unnecessary with so many compelling stories already present. This subplot's only real purpose is to unite all the characters for a final confrontation, in which the story veers dangerously close to melodrama and a superfluous moment of violence.
At the close of Twelfth and Race, Goodman attempts to balance the realities of urban violence with a message of reconciliation and hope. The last chapter tends toward preaching as Richie thinks, "The forces that ended this boy's life, that woman's son, the life of that baby's father, must themselves be ended." The novel's final image, however, of its central characters sitting together in solidarity with the protesters, is a much more effective and memorable way of presenting the message at the center of the story.