Ritual and Self-Renewal

Ritual and Self-Renewal

by James Alan McPherson
Simon & Schuster, 1998, 288 pp., $13

Pulitzer-Prize winner James Alan McPherson has written two highly regarded collections of short fiction, and the pleasures and insights offered by Crabcakes are those of a well-crafted story. This memoir uses the epiphanies and dramatic resolutions of fiction to generate the religious and ethical insight of spiritual autobiography. McPherson traces the psychological path from early alienation to his personal renewal in an intimate circle of friends, a number of whom are deeply influenced by Japanese culture. Gaining entrance into Japanese forms of community and piety, McPherson experiences an acute personal conversion. However, when he makes broad social claims for his personal experience, he puts himself on problematic ground. Crabcakes ultimately attempts to illuminate late twentieth-century interracial American life through personal introspection.

The starting place of this plot is the helter-skelter world of McPherson’s hometown of Baltimore, a realm of racist police and the decay of a once vital inner-city world. We see this racism in McPherson’s encounter with a state trooper who impounds his car as he drives outside the city. We see it again in the memory of McPherson’s meeting with a car full of policemen in the city. In Baltimore, the narrator is alternately a victim of racism and an agent of the forces that undermine what he will eventually understand as the communitas offered by Japanese society. His involvement with this world reaches crisis proportions with the death of Channie Washington, an elderly tenant of McPherson’s Baltimore property. Preparing to unburden himself of his unprofitable rental house, McPherson begins to confront the issue of community and his relationship to others. Mrs. Washington, who for years included friendly, affirming letters with her rent, is an anticipation of the organic relations that McPherson will find in Japanese culture. As McPherson makes preparations to evict the rental property’s other occupant, a Mr. Butler, Washington and her life are dimly but increasingly understood as a humanizing force within an eroding inner-city world. The warmth with which she addresses McPherson in her letters evokes community as does the meal she serves him when he returns to Baltimore from Iowa (where he now teaches). Washington, who has selflessly raised an extended family, is described by McPherson as the “Fountainhead . . . that keeps the ‘we’, the ‘us’ collected.”

One of Baltimore’s humanizing features is the consumption of crabcakes near the downtown harbor, where people from all over the city eat the delicacy in groups at stands. At one point McPherson speaks of the crabcake eating as a communion, and the activity as a ceremony that brings Baltimoreans of all ranks together in a regional understanding. However, Channie Wash...

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