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Ostensibly the story of fabled-yet-forgotten black comedian Jackie Mann, John Ridley’s book A Conversation With the Mann paints a vivid profile of America from the ’30s to the ’60s. Ridley clearly knows his showbiz lore, filling the novel with just the right names and places: the Copa, Ciro’s, the Sands’ Jack Entratter, Jilly Rizzo, and Franks Costello and Sinatra. Lenny Bruce, Berry Gordy, and the Black Panthers meaningfully appear, too. But A Conversation With the Mann is also a direct challenge to the Man, barely letting a page pass without reminding us that the African-American experience was never as shiny as Sammy’s suits. Though frequently melodramatic, the novel is so sharply written and utterly convincing that one forgives the soap-opera moments. Ridley wrote the stories that became the gritty films Three Kings and U-Turn, and also wrote and produced the forthcoming neo-blaxploitation comedy Undercover Brother, which I am really looking forward to now. Ridley reads Wednesday at Karibu Books, but tonight he reads at 12:30 p.m. at Olsson’s Books & Records, 1200 F Street NW. Free. (202) 347-3686. (Dave Nuttycombe)