Kyle's Reviews > The Bag

The Bag by Sol Yurick
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's review
Jun 18, 2007

liked it
bookshelves: fiction, new-york

Sol Yurick's sprawling 1968 novel of race and class relations in New York is well worth slogging through if you love period detail as much as I do. It is a pretty dense book and the going gets tougher as you go. It incited me to riot with the rioters of those hot 60s summers and to want revolution where no revolution ever was. I miss the political fervor people had back then and the tireless organizing that no one seems to do anymore and the unified view people had of all acts being inter-related and politcal in nature.

At times it seemed problematic to have a Jew writing about blacks and the black power movement. His language is dated. His mastery of African-American vernacular English seems extensive, but I'm not sure I would remember or know enough to be a judge of that. Two white people in the book come to identify so strongly with black culture that they begin to speak black English and it isn't a pretty picture he's painting, so that seems to be some kind of inherent inescapable criticism. As if he's lamenting conditions in the ghetto, but at the same time warning us not to get too caught up in it. It will drag us down instead of the other way around.

His women characters are even more questionable in a way. There are only small parts for women. A long-suffering writer's wife who somehow seems to be figuratively castrating him while at the same time being "suppoortive" of his art. A rich white girl who wants to be in the black culture and winds up as a junkie prostitute. A slightly menacing, psychologically frustrated, Freudian lesbian. And a social worker with dew in hers eyes, who still wants to see the good in everybody and believe that things can change for the better.

I guess while I'm sending up stereotypes I have have to mention the Jewish slumlord concentration camp escapee. One money-grubbing Jew.

These characters are not quite as one dimensional as I'm making them out to be. They occasionally grow or change or have an insight, but they are blocked from reaching their full potential as People (characters) by his need to have them all spewing political rhetoric of one stripe or another. They have too much to say and not enough to do.

The book as a whole holds out little hope for real substantative change unless you believe revolution could happen and work in America. Or that the messy dialogue between all the diverse characters is gradually accomplishing something. I guess from my persepctive 40 years later, it seems like there has been a slow shift in the right direction, but is it enough? Or will we be playing fiddle as New York burns before too long?

The police and the military bash heads and follow orders and seem unredeemable. They come off as a unit, a force with no specific characters being human, a blugeoning tool of "the man."

I like his writing. His description is great if he's not holding forth too much on something. As a period piece of New York City, the East Village, Tompkins Park, the projects thereabouts, it is truly groovy with hippies and and a send up of Allen Ginsberg as "Milton Bimstein". It has all that good druggie and hippie and flower-child stuff in it.

And what is the "Bag" of the title? While reading it, I was left holding the bag. In that sense the bag is the blame or the responsibility, the onus. It was impossible to avoid considering what niche in society I'm currently wedged into and whether I would or could do anything to change things for the better. So I guess Old Sol's kind of taking everyone to task in that way. Asking what are you going to do about it? He can at least say he wrote the book.

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