By Kevin Baker
HarperCollins, 550 pp., $26.95
The late fiction writer Andre Dubus II once remarked to me that a novel asks a question, the answer to which is both yes and no. ''Answer yes, and you're dealing with a sentimental writer," said Dubus. ''No, and you're talking about a limited writer." In ''Strivers Row," the final installment of Kevin Baker's ''City of God" trilogy, readers will discover an ambitious, cinematic tale, although hindered in its effect by a writer reluctant to formulate the appropriate question.
The conclusion to Baker's New York epic takes place in Harlem during World War II. The period details are carefully observed: the jazzy patter and rent parties; the emerging black middle class and its grounding in the Protestant church; the rising tension between black GIs and a predominantly white police force; and the late-night mixing of races in the legendary dance halls uptown. Baker's narrative follows twin, mostly parallel tracks, namely, the arrival in Harlem of Malcolm Little (later to be known as Malcolm X) and the tribulations of a young black minister, Rev. Jonah Dove, pastor of the fictional Church of the New Jerusalem and son of its aged founder, Milton Dove.
Early on, ''Strivers Row" features a virtuoso scene, in which the teenage Malcolm, dressed in a flashy zoot suit with ''sweet-potato-colored-shoes," catches a train to New York. But it's the way he catches the Yankee Clipper that distinguishes Malcolm as a character, and opens the novel with such promise. He works as a ''sandwich man" on the line out of Boston, and while his fellow crew members look on, Malcolm saunters alongside the already moving train, counting off the cars as they begin to stream past. At the last second, he grabs onto the rail, using the momentum of the train to spirit him up and into the kitchen car, to the laughter of his mates.
On the train Malcolm comes to the rescue of two strangers, the light-skinned Jonah and his darker-hued wife, Amanda. At first, Malcolm believes that Jonah is a white man and can't fathom why a group of drunken white soldiers is harassing him. Realizing the truth, Malcolm uses his street smarts and toughness to fend off the soldiers until the MPs arrive. Jonah is more embarrassed than grateful.
Malcolm and Jonah take mainly divergent paths from there, the former seeking to embrace his black identity, the latter intent on escaping it. Despite his work ethic, the New York Malcolm sinks into two-bit hustles and drug use, committing petty crimes and dreaming of bigger scores. However, the future Malcolm X's infamous degradation, the journey through hell that preceded his religious and social awakening, is curiously tame, as if none of it were Malcolm's fault, or even his intention. It's all there: Malcolm as pimp, drug dealer, bagman, and tout -- somehow sanitized and sanctified by Baker's treatment.
Of course, a historical novel is neither fish nor fowl, since the writer is not bound by accounts of what actually happened during a specific era, nor completely free to create a traditional work of the imagination. Baker's strength is the variety and disposition of his minor characters, many of them based on real people. There's Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the Great Emancipator himself, depicted as a sour old man who ''haaated Negroes." Adam Clayton Powell Jr. makes several memorable appearances, a charismatic, confident, but flawed civic leader, more interested in satisfying his appetites than leading his people out of their Jim Crow wilderness. Also in the cast is Master Wallace D. Fard, an apparent white man who claimed to be black, one of ''the Original People, the Negroes." Equal parts shaman and charlatan, Fard recruited Elijah Muhammad into what became the Nation of Islam, schooling him in the white man's ''evil new science of Tricknology."
The narrative addresses many sensitive topics, highlighting the ugly tension between the races that has never abated in this country and shows few signs of ever doing so. Baker explores black-on-black crime, interracial couples, the hair straightening and skin lightening of those trying to ''pass," and the self-hatred of certain blacks stuck in limbo between white America's materialism and African-American spirituality. What troubles me about Baker's portrayal of these subjects, besides Malcolm's pasteurized criminality, is the thorny stereotype that his important black characters were, each one, redeemed in some sense by a white person. The fictional Milton (and, by extension, his son Jonah) was saved from a racist mob by his white mother, who was murdered and martyred as a result. Even young Malcolm owes a good measure of his all-important self-esteem to the diligence of a kindly white social worker named Maynard Allen.
In his acknowledgments, Baker notes that one of his principal sources, ''The Autobiography of Malcolm X," was a flawed document, not to be taken literally in its explication of how Malcolm was introduced to Muhammad, Fard, and the Nation of Islam. But instead of bending time, as he does elsewhere, to re-create the initial, seminal meetings between Malcolm and Muhammad, Baker falls back on the story in the autobiography that they met in a dream or vision that Malcolm had -- while stating afterward that such an event couldn't possibly have taken place. Kevin Baker is a rare talent. Yet by shrinking from the truth in ''Strivers Row," he has failed to pose the right question.
Jay Atkinson is an English professor at Salem State College and the author, most recently, of ''Legends of Winter Hill." His e-mail address is email@example.com.