Summerbook #2: Walls of Jericho

Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher

A few years back I really enjoyed The Conjure-Man Dies, a 1932 mystery by Harlem Renaissance writer Rudolph Fisher.  This novel was written a few years earlier; it was published in 1928.  Fisher paints a portrait of a Harlem preoccupied with both race and class.

Fisher has a cast of characters that are enormously disparate, but that intertwine in intriguing ways.  We have a team of moving men, led by Shine, an Ajax of a man; Ralph Merritt, a successful lawyer; Linda, an ambitious working girl, and several others.

Merritt is buying a home just outside the edge of Harlem in a white neighborhood -- mostly to annoy his neighbors.  At first, the story might seem to be about the 'walls of Jericho' of white society, but there are other walls that turn out to be more central.  Shine (whose actual name is Joshua) comes to realize that in order to have the life he wants, he must tear down his own inner walls, and the same is true of everyone.  And when Merritt's house is attacked, it's a lot more complicated than it looks.

That makes it sound like a psychological novel, which it isn't.  It's a braid of the experiences of several people, and it's quite fun to read.  Fisher pokes satirical holes in the society he knows, and he provides a little puzzle to solve too.  (I like his penchant for mysteries!)  Since he uses Harlem slang of the late 1920's, he considerately provided a glossary at the back, which is helpful at times -- though a good bit of the slang is still familiar today.  This was a replica of the original edition, so that was nice too.

I didn't really know anything about Rudolph Fisher, so I took a quick look around.  His main vocation was medicine; he was a doctor and early radiologist.  He had a private practice on Long Island, and then became the superintendent at a Harlem hospital.  He was also a lover of jazz, a musician, and an orator.  He wrote quite a few short stories and two novels.   Sadly, Fisher died too young, at 37, from cancer that was quite possibly the result of the radiology; he was experimenting with X-rays.  What an impressive legacy he left.

All of Fisher's works are in print, but I must say I think he deserves a Library of America volume.


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