A Forgotten Classic: William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer

In this excerpt from his fascinating The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler discusses the neglected William Melvin Kelley, author of the remarkable forgotten classic, A Different Drummer

‘If you’re woke, you dig it.’ Well, that answers the question; the word ‘woke’ first appeared in 1962, after William Melvin Kelley said it in a New York Times article that suggested beatniks had appropriated slang from African-Americans. Kelley was 24 at the time and lived ‘uptown, way uptown.’

He was interested in idiomatic language, and said his grandmother had told him that ‘ofay’, meaning a white man, was pig Latin for ‘foe’, so black idiomatic language was primarily used for secrecy, exclusion and protection. Black slang, awkwardly placed in white mouths, sounds, he said, like white audiences clapping on the wrong jazz beat, first and third instead of two and four. Jazz was analogous to black writing, played first in all-black dancehalls and moving out to the white mainstream, finally reaching a point where La La Land could let Ryan Gosling explain a black artform to us.

Kelley sounded Bronx rather than black, and impersonated Frank Sinatra for the local kids. He set his first novel, A Different Drummer (which appeared less than a month after his New York Times article) in the recent past, having had the idea for it in high school. The book has a killer hook; Tucker Caliban, the descendant of an African chief who once decapitated his captor with his chains, burns down his homestead, kills his livestock, salts his fields so that nothing can grow, and takes off with his family for parts unknown – followed, shortly after, by the entire disenfranchised black population.

The governor is glad. ‘We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them.’ The remaining white two-thirds are less angry than mystified. There’s a callback of sorts in the aftermath of 9/11; ‘Why do they hate us?’ It feels like an act of natural forces, something inevitable and unstoppable. There’s no anger in Tucker. ‘He accepted everything almost as if he knew it was going to happen.’

So, Kelley’s 24 and more than just woke, he’s on fire. He writes from different perspectives, multiple voices, he’s going tight into details and wide with apocalyptic events, controlled yet freeform. He’s called experimental, satirical, unique. What next?

He’d grown up in a white Italian neighbourhood, the son of   a former newspaper editor. Planning on a career as a civil rights lawyer, Kelley left Harvard just before getting his degree. His problem? He had trouble reading. Years later he said he’d only finished two books, James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Bible, so I imagine they put him off.

A collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore, and a second novel, A Drop of Patience, appeared in quick succession. A Drop of Patience is jazz and colour and history. Kelley is confident and in control. His writing is pleasurable, not earnest, his short story ‘Not Exactly Lena Horne’ is a delight and his characters slip from one book to another because like most good writers Kelley is a world-builder. Meanwhile he’s hit by a series of life-changers, the assassination of Malcolm X, black power, the start of the Black Arts Movement, the end of ‘integrationism’.

Kelley covered the Malcolm X trial for the Saturday Evening Post but, disillusioned by the judicial process, he moved to Paris, then Jamaica, and eventually converted to Judaism. His third novel is dem, a luridly knowing soap-operatic satire that does its best to alienate readers with periodic crash-landings into wildly idiomatic language. His fourth, Dunfords Travels Everywheres uses an idea I’d first encountered in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, in which clothes symbolise ideas. In The Visit, yellow shoes come to represent fascism. In Dunfords Travels Everywheres, segregation is based on the popula- tion’s choice of clothing. This is Kelley’s Finnegans Wake novel, and storms ahead of his readers. Very few authors apart from Gore Vidal ever cemented an enduring reputation for themselves with satire. As far as I know his final novel, Dis/Integration, has never appeared. By this time the author was using a language of his own devising, part-patois, part Standard English, that had the impact of a haunting if very strange dream. When he and his family finally returned to New York, Kelley found that the reading public had forgotten him. He couldn’t understand it; he knew he was a great writer producing fiction in a unique voice, so why would people ignore him?

The argument goes on. He wrote too many white characters for black readers, too much black patois for white readers, his vision of America was too bleak, his prose was too complex and fantastical.

It’s more likely that times changed and while he was away new voices like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were being heard. Readers can be disappointingly linear. Kelley was riffing on race, politics, love and life, and his audience just heard too many notes.

A Different Drummer: the extraordinary rediscovered classic of 2018 is finally available again today, in a paperback reissue, from riverrun. Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors (also from riverrun) is out in paperback now.

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