A Review of Ernie Brill's "I Looked Over Jordan" and Other Stories
by Anonymous
Urgent Tasks No. 10

This is a book of eight short stories. It is the first collection in print by this author. Like most first books, the material is drawn largely from the author's own experience. Besides straight third and first person narrative there are a number of experiments with others' narrative methods, such as stream-of-consciousness. Four of the stories are obviously linked by the same persona and locale. All of the stories, however, are joined by threads more subtle and more important. The characterization and dialogue are uneven. At points they embarrass the reader with their stiltedness. At others they make you smile with pleasure. This is a good first book of fiction. In the above respects, not too different from others published in the past or others to be published in the future. Except for three things. The author is a communist. He is writing about his and his fellow workers' experience in hospitals. The publisher is a reputable left-wing press.

"Gersh" is the story of an old Jewish worker who comes to the hospital to die of cancer. His dying literally stinks, and in a series of scenes Brill creates an indelible impression of just how putrid death can be. Brill leaves aside the temptation to make the dying man a fount of sage advice to the living. Instead, "Gersh" concentrates on the relationships among the dying man's closest relatives. With a can of aerosol air freshener as a literary vehicle, Brill makes those relationships so lifelike that they too stink with death.

Brill's worker-characters are pushed and harassed. In the hospital they suffer from being understaffed. Although the capitalist class rarely comes into view, that stratum of workers who supervise and control other workers do. But the focus is not the oppression and exploitation of the working class, although that point is amply told. It is the workplace as the locus of a series of human relationships which give the characters life and a place to grow. Sometimes Brill is able to push his story and his characters to the fullness of their potential, as in "Gersh." (In my opinion "Gersh" jumps the limits imposed on a story centered on the workplace and workplace relations more than any of the other linked stories. It is also more successful at a fuller examination of human personality than the two obvious attempts to do just that, "Autumn Leaves" and "I Looked Over Jordan.")

Brill attempts to give play to almost every major emotion and personality characteristic. But in the main his characters remain asexual. This in part stems from the workplacecenteredness of the human relations which do not provide an easy vehicle for sexuality. The one place he seems to succeed in portraying sexuality is in "A Slap in the Face." Although the main focus in that story is on racial conflict, the portrayal of the sexuality of the main Black woman character is an integral part of the rest of the story. In the other stories the male workers' dialogue among themselves, complete with all the sexual references, works well. But in "Autumn Leaves," the most moody and emotional story of the batch, the portrayal of sexuality generally fails.

In "Autumn Leaves" Brill abandons the straight narrative which is the standard left-literary convention. He uses a couple of flash-backs to create a mood of sentimentality, and he moves in and out of the first person narrator's consciousness. But Brill italicizes the flash-backs and they don't sit easily in the story. He's much better at incorporating snatches of songs which serve as a source of collective memory. The story closes with a stream-of-consciousness that is not italicized and is very effective.

...Going maroon moon coming lie ok hey beautiful song worth hearing three TIME beautiful ul lull BULLETS SUDDEN PING! Gone GONE nothing 111 left Thatsit. That's it - Bugs Bunny Loony Tunes ending too speeding Th-d-d-duddle d-duddle du-duddle thluddle rol l ing calliope...

"Autumn Leaves" is a story centering on John Kennedy’s death and the reaction of sorrow people have to it. It is overladen with the narrator's sentimental attachment to the early SNCC-CORE-March-on-Washington movement. It is the juxtaposition of those two sentiments that bothers this writer more than any of the technical difficulties Brill might have from venturing into the literary unknown.

In "A Slap in the Face" there is a different projection of the movement. In that story the narrator is a cadre member of a health-care organizing collective instead of the "Leaves" work-study student vaguely attached to a movement for social justice. In a particularly telling episode the narrator's collective is meeting during a lunch break to plot strategy at the hospital. The narrator is particularly unhappy with the collective use of left-jargon and treatment of people as inhuman categories. He attributes some of this to the movement's false sense of importance.

“Essentially,” Sandy continued, his voice picking up, "all socialist work is illegal. In India, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe, Iran-we could be shot for what we-re doing right now." "But we're in Bob's Donut Shop," I said. Jack and Karen giggled.

That one scene is similar to the episode in Marge Piercy's Vida where a number of political fugitives are discussing the future of their underground network. One of the characters complains of the chilly response he gets from an ex-lover. "This is a meeting, not an encounter group," she replies. "No, its a walk up a mountain," he answers. Both Piercy's and Brill's episodes are recurring themes in literature about the movement. Just as they reflect real dilemma in the movement. These dilemmas don't exist because of the personal idiosyncrasies of the characters, whether they be Brill's Sandy, Piercy's Kiley, or anyone you might know. The sensibilities of Brill and others may highlight the problem, but they can offer no solution.

Brill's literary alter-egos, Josh and Dov, don't suffer from arrogance or an inflated sense of self-importance. Instead, they are clearly listening to and learning from the experienced, mostly Black, workers with whom they interact. This is a recurring subtlety throughout the first seven stories. In "I Looked Over Jordan," the final story in the book, it gets explicit treatment. In "Jordan" a young white boy clearly has his life changed by an encounter with an old Black man about to die. Brill's respect for everyday people revealed through everyday occurrences commands the attention of the reader. When his worker-characters rebel, they smash a clothing locker or hit a supervisor. They don't break into songful panegyrics to Marxism-Leninism- MaoTseTung Thought or joyride socialism through the halls of the hospital. His is a working class of substantive individuals, not just oppressed and miserable literary objects.

This collection of short stories is a product of a particular section of the movement. Those New Left students of the sixties who went into industry and the working class to help effect the political transformation of the working class and make a socialist revolution. That part of the movement has been less visible and less glamorous than the movement portrayed in Vida or Union Dues. It is a section of the movement that has little interest in literature and other fine arts. What interest it does have is usually confined to the music at protest rallies and poster art. On occasion there is interest in popular culture, as demonstrated by the Urgent Tasks articles on the King Tut Exhibit and punk rock.

This lack of general interest is in part due to the lack of literary expression from the industrialized communist left. But it is primarily due to the mechanical materialism and pragmatism that forms the intellectual heritage of the Left. The Black movement has consistently found an enormous cultural expression covering a wide range of the fine arts. More recently this has also been true of the women's movement. In the case of the former, the irreducible distinctiveness of Black peoples' experience makes the line between Black popular culture and a culture created specifically out of the Black movement very thin.

The phenomenon of Left working class culture is more ambiguous [1]. A distinctive autonomous working class culture will develop as part of a distinctive and autonomous working class, a development we are still waiting for. Brill, like other communist writers, can best be understood as being in the gaps between the communist movement and the working class. His stories are about working class (mostly Black) people, but they are narrated and interpreted through the person of a white student radical. Because Brill is honest about the limitations of his point of view, all of the stories ring true. He doesn't, for example, try to tell "A Slap in the Face" through the eyes of the Black nurse Rainey. But these limitations are not absolutes. Jordan has enjoyed a wide popularity among the hospital workers who worked with Brill. Its appeal, in my opinion, is definitely working class. Over the long-run it will probably find more working class than movement readers. However, it is not a cultural expression of the working class. It is a cultural expression of the communist movement.

Brill's collection of short stories is not alone in this category of literature. Plays are being written and produced, poetry and other short stories are being published and a number of novels are in progress. Jordan is one of the most accomplished of these enterprises to date and a harbinger of things to come.

1. The intent here is not to pose Black and "working class" against one another. But their interaction and separation in popular and movement culture is way beyond the scope of this review.[return to text]

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