On the Ropes
Simon & Schuster
The Washington Post
Sunday, 2 November 2003
Murad Kalam's debut novel, Night Journey, tells the story of Turtle and Eddie Bloodpath, brothers who turn to the drug game, pimping, gunplay and boxing as ways to survive the torrid climes of South Phoenix, Ariz. The novel begins in 1988, and as with so many stories of contemporary urban African-American life, its plot is set in motion when Edward Bloodpath Sr. abandons his family. In response, Turtle, 12, leads his 10-year-old brother, Eddie, away from the stability provided by their mother and grandmother. Instead the two boys turn to the proving grounds of the South Phoenix streets and "alternative" employment. Along with Adolpho, Turtle's Chicano lieutenant, the boys take over the home of a dead neighbor, turning it into their business center and a shelter for their stable of street workers. One of them, a teenage prostitute named Tessa, moves into the house and quickly becomes Eddie's protector and confidante.
Taking note of Eddie's skill with his fists and his sensitivity toward Tessa, Turtle encourages his brother to abandon street hustling in favor of boxing. Under the tutelage of a perfunctory streetwise Jewish trainer, Eddie discovers in the rigid discipline of the ring a shield against the vagaries of street life. He sees very early on that Turtle's route leads straight to prison and that the chances of creating a stable partnership with Tessa weaken with every shot of heroin she takes. But he hopes against hope to save them both.
Through his boxing, Eddie searches for a path that will help him escape poverty-stricken South Phoenix and find wealth and success as a champion fighter. His quest recalls The Culture of Bruising, in which Gerald Early observes that there is no more sentimental figure than the black male boxer using the sport to create himself. When boxing does not seem enough, Eddie also comes under the momentary spell of the Nation of Islam. Eddie seems to believe that he can bolster his chances of survival by refining his musculature, cleansing his system, improving his hygiene and blanketing his black skin beneath the triple protection of clean white shirts, bow ties and dark suits. With Eddie, as perhaps with many religious converts, it isn't the benefit of spiritual openness that attracts him to his faith, but rather the restrictive, conservative, unyielding dictates of religious law, the hope for a galvanized sanctuary against temptation and impurity.
In drawing Eddie's story as a sentimental modernist narrative of self-realization, Kalam has set up implicit questions about the American inability to define masculinity in a way that takes account of its immense variety. Often, that inability has historically been worked out on black male bodies. Black men have been simultaneously loved and feared, symbolically exalted and literally emasculated, conditioned to survive and randomly extinguished. Kalam comments on the rough terrain that black men have traveled by putting his protagonist through a series of humiliations, including having his books and gym gear strewn in the street and getting beaten by cops.
Eddie is the most compelling and interesting character in a book that contains the threads of three different novels in its pages: one about Turtle, one about Tessa and one about Eddie. That minor difficulty becomes more apparent when you notice that the novel is overstuffed with characters in various states of development who come in to mark symbolic turns or to provide the flint sparks of motivation for the other characters. Unfortunately, some of these characters are unsatisfactory and eventually get in the way. Edward Sr., for example, leaves, returns and leaves again. Yet the reason for his presence is never clear, even though his flight is the impetus for the brothers' journey.
The novel survives such problems because Kalam's writing, which has a fluid precision, intelligently addresses the plight of many young black men. Kalam's literary gifts emerge in his observations and descriptions, and he's at his best when writing about Eddie in the ring. Night Journey is most effective when Kalam subtly narrates the harrowing and complex realities of many American black men at the end of the 20th century -- their poverty, their pain, their determination to survive.