Jimmy's Reviews > Go Tell it on the Mountain

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
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Aug 24, 10

bookshelves: male, novel, year-1950s
Read from August 21 to 23, 2010

When I was vacationing in Chicago recently, I went to a used bookstore and saw some James Baldwin books. I've heard many good things about him, so I decided to get this book... an old paperback edition (not the white one pictured above) for $5.

The next morning, flipping through my stack of newly purchased books, I noticed to my amazement that this book was signed! And signed "For Jimmy". Unbelievable:


('For Jimmy or be that James: Peace, James Baldwin')

So I felt like it was fate that brought this book into my hands, this book which had as its subject matter: fate. So what could it mean? What is the universe trying to tell me? Am I looking at a double fucking rainbow? ;)
"The distant gramophone stuck now, suddenly, on a grinding, wailing, sardonic trumpet-note; this blind, ugly crying swelled the moment and filled the room. She looked down at John. A hand somewhere struck the gramophone arm and sent the silver needle on its way through the whirling, black grooves, like something bobbing, anchorless, in the middle of the sea." p. 219.
What I love about this book, and what I feel a lot of people reviewing this book on Goodreads have misinterpreted about it, is that this book does not have an agenda on race, religion, class, violence, or sexuality. This book is about these things, but they are never in the driver's seat, because the characters are. The characters are the glue between the interconnectedness of race and religion and class and violence and sexuality, and they show how out of these things arises an insurmountable complexity, an ambiguous amorphous blob of feelings. It is precisely the ability to live within the complexity of these feelings instead of reducing it into the simplicity of judgement that great writers are great. By the end of this book, the reader feels just as ambiguous about God as the characters do. Is the (thing that happens at the end) a good or a bad thing? It is neither, rather it is a complicated mess of feelings that cannot be untied into good or bad.

If you understand how complex things are in the real world, it is hard not to feel empathy for those who must live it. That is why the characters are also neither good nor bad. They are human, and thus, imperfect. Baldwin is a master at inhabiting their headspaces, filling out the history of each character so completely and humanely that it is hard not to feel empathy for each character, even the ones that have done awful things. In fact, the whole book is an exercise in empathy, and that is, in my opinion, the highest aim for any artist.

Of course, I haven't even touched on the attention and quality of the actual words that make up his sentences. Here is a sample excerpt. Note how the lyrical rhythm drives the narrative and vice versa. Also note how he tells more than shows, thus dismantling the "show don't tell" adage (which was never a good rule anyway, except for those aiming for mediocrity, which seems to be all we're willing to aim for these days):
God was everywhere, terrible, the living God; and so high, the song said, you couldn't get over Him; so low you couldn't get under Him; so wide you couldn't get around Him; but must come in at the door.

And she, she knew today that door; a living, wrathful gate. She knew through what fires the soul must crawl, and with what weeping one passed over. Men spoke of how the heart broke up, but never spoke of how the soul hung speechless in the pause, the void, the terror between the living and the dead; how, all garments rent and cast aside, the naked soul passed over the very mouth of Hell. Once there, there was no turning back; once there, the soul remembered, though the heart sometimes forgot. For the world called to the heart, which stammered to reply; life, and love, and revelry, and, most falsely, hope, called the forgetful, the human heart. Only the soul, obsessed with the journey it had made, and had still to make, pursued its mysterious and dreadful end; and carried heavy with weeping and bitterness, the heart along.

And therefore there was war in Heaven, and weeping before the throne: the heart chained to the soul, and the soul imprisoned within the flesh--a weeping, a confusion, and a weight unendurable filled all the earth. Only the love of God could establish order in this chaos; to Him the soul must turn to be delivered.

But what a turning! How could she fail to pray that He would have mercy on her son, and spare him the sin-born anguish of his father and his mother. And that his heart might know a little joy before the long bitterness descended.

SPOILER ALERT:

For those who criticize the end of the book for its convenience/believability: I think what Baldwin is getting at here is that the conversion is not a willful choice. Johnny does not choose to be converted. Of course, the conversion is hard to believe for skeptics of religion, but I think you have to go in with the attitude that Baldwin himself is skeptical of religion, but he is also a believer, at least on some level, i.e. he might not believe religion is always a force for good, but he damn well believes that it is a force. Whether you believe it is the holy spirit or the atmosphere or voodoo does not matter, things like this do happen, and the fact that Johnny's whole life has been steered in this direction doesn't help. It is almost like his own reluctance is no match for the fate of all the history that has brought him to this point in time.

It is also brilliant how the conversion is shown in this light… where it wavers between a joyous event and a thing that is inevitable, like a well-set trap… down a long dark road that has no good end. This ominousness goes along with the joy and tempers it, makes it such a great, ambiguous ending. You get a sense that this is just the beginning of a long hard journey for John.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Geoff (new) - added it

Geoff Great review, Jimmy. And the coincidence of the inscription is one of those things that makes life so fucking amazing.


Jimmy Thanks, Geoff. Have you read this book before? Or anything by him? This was my first James Baldwin, but I'm gonna read more by him very soon.


message 3: by Geoff (new) - added it

Geoff I've only read "Another Country" and honestly I didn't love it. It was solid, but wasn't something I was raving about. A long time ago I saw a PBS documentary (I think it was one of those American Experience shows) about his life, and it was incredible. Expat, lived this cloistered life in Switzerland and France, returned to America during the violence of the civil rights era, etc. Really interesting guy who I would be willing to read more of in the future.


Jimmy Too bad you didn't like that book, but maybe you'll like his others. I'm personally really excited to read some of his nonfiction, actually.


message 5: by Tracie (new)

Tracie Such a great story about a story. :)


Brooke Scanlon "Go Tell it on the mountain" is it like the song?


Jimmy It's a spiritual song, and this novel is about spiritual/religious themes, so yes, I believe it's an allusion to the song.


Brooke Scanlon cool.


David S. T. Jimmy, have you got around to reading any of the others yet?


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