This 1961 novel tells the story of Rufus Scott, a talented drummer in Harlem, overcome by the societal forces he faces, and the stories of his friends in the aftermath of his death. He is introduced to us on the last night of a gig when he meets the sweet Leona, a Southern white woman with a complicated past. Their intense love for each other does not overcome those societal forces, and Rufus begins to believe she is seeing other men and his anger boils over so that they are both destroyed.
The others in Rufus’ orbit include his best friend the Italian Vivaldo, working year after year on his novel; Ida, Rufus’ beautiful sister; Richard, just published author of an inferior book; Cass, the kindly wife of Richard; Eric, another Southern former lover of Rufus who returned from three years in Paris after Rufus died; Yves, Eric’s French beloved. Their couplings, both long-term and brief, are recounted with loving humanity and bringing enlightening truths to the fore.
Ida and Vivaldo live together after Rufus’ death. For Vivaldo the attraction involves his love for Rufus; for her, it’s Vivaldo’s kindness in the wake of Rufus’ death and a way to avoid Rufus’ fate. Richard and Cass become estranged as he focuses on being a successful writer and she sees him as a weak writer. She has an affair with Eric, knowing that Yves will be coming to New York. Ida is unfaithful to Vivaldo with Ellis, a rich and powerful man in the world of the arts, who pays for her singing lessons. On a night as everything is coming unraveled, Vivaldo falls into the arms of Eric. That night Cass tells Richard about her affair and the next day Vivaldo learns of Ida’s affair. Though these were shocking and taboo connections when Baldwin wrote, the characters come alive and their humanity is in evidence.
One highlight (of the many) in the book for me was the experience of Vivaldo and Cass going to Harlem for Rufus’ funeral. As she gets out of their cab, Cass realizes she does not have a hat, a necessity for this funeral and she goes off to buy one. Her thoughts as she navigates this business are poignant. The preacher’s address about Rufus was especially moving.
Ida’s confession to Vivaldo was another important moment. Amidst the anger and the accusations, they go quiet and come to face the demons that bedevil them with the kindness and dispassion needed.
It is noteworthy that though there is some dated vocabulary, the issues remain relevant.
James Baldwin, Another Country, Dell, 1962, 366 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.