Novelist and essayist Darryl Pinckney draws on the legacy of Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s expat classic, The Berlin Stories, in his second novel, Black Deutschland. Pinckney’s young, African-American narrator, Jed Goodfinch, makes repeated visits to Berlin in the decade before the Berlin Wall falls in 1989. Unlike Isherwood’s characters, however, Jed can openly state that the city’s thriving gay community is a big part of its appeal.
Jed has spent several summers in Berlin, drinking and drugging at the Chi Chi bar and sponging off his cousin Cello, an imperious classical pianist who married into a wealthy German family. But his latest visit is different: Fresh out of rehab, Jed is working with a celebrated and controversial architect whose project to renovate whole sections of West Berlin mirror Jed’s hopes for his own reinvention.
The novel shifts in time, much as Jed travels between Berlin and Chicago. Chicago represents the complexities of being a black man in the United States, not to mention Jed’s parents’ disappointment in him—though whether that is due to his addiction or his sexuality, he’s not sure. Berlin means AA meetings with black GIs, bohemian clubs, socialist co-ops—and lots of love, mostly unrequited but, in one magical instance, very requited indeed.
Black Deutschland is an episodic mix of ideas, places, happenings and emotions. At its best, the novel plunges the reader directly into singular events—the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, or the somber days after the sudden death of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Though the shifts in time and place can be disorientingly swift, the through note is Jed’s wryly comic, witheringly honest voice. Pinckney’s belief in a ferocious intellect as a key component in the engaged life is deliciously present in this inviting and absorbing novel.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Darryl Pinckney about this book.
This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.