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The 10 brilliantly executed short stories in David Dante Troutt’s debut, The Monkey Suit: And Other Short Fiction on African Americans and Justice, which move chronologically through more than 150 years of black life from plantation slavery to corporate “volunteer slavery,” are all based on true court cases. The result is a brand of historical fiction that agitates the reader’s political conscience even as it satisfies the highest literary expectations.
Troutt takes a risk right away in the first story, “Glow in the Dark.” Written in Southern black dialect, it deals with an 1833 case in which a thief was charged with assault for cutting the rope that tied a captured slave to the sheriff who was supposed to return him to his rightful owner. In the excerpted brief, we learn, the court ruled that “the rope was as much identified with his person, as the hat or coat which he wore.” Troutt personifies the rope and humanizes the slave, effectively shifting the spotlight away from the white sheriff and thief: “Da Rope said run. Run, nigga, run….Hush, Rope, John Henry whisper hard at it….I see bout runnin tomorruh. But da Rope ain’t interested in dat….Now it jes tugged at John Henry, knottin up in a fist te speak wit a debilish mouth.” Unlike other contemporary Northern black writers using Southern dialect, Troutt has actually done his research, and his prose reads as easy as grease slides off a pig.
The language choice in this first story sets the tone for the tales that follow, each written in a dialect, whether it’s the junkie’s jive talk in “Tell About Tellin’” or the standard English in “Love Space.”
“The Bargain” takes place in the comparatively integrated Louisville, Ky., of 1912. In the story, two men, one black and one white, strike up an uneasy, uneven partnership. Their case involves the sale of a very large house under Jim Crow. No white people want to buy it, because it sits at the border between what has been declared a “black” street and a “white” street. The white owner is allowed to sell the house to his black partner, but a legal battle must take place before the black man can live in the house he plans to buy. As vividly as any documentary or historical text, this story conveys the disruptive effect segregation ordinances caused in an America that was slowly beginning to accept the realities of race.
Most of the cases Troutt has chosen are fairly obscure, but “For Love of Trains” takes its legal basis from Powell v. Alabama, the principal case involving the Scottsboro Boys, the nine young black men who were falsely accused, in 1931, of the rape of two white girls. Troutt focuses on the family of one of the defendants and its futile attempt to gain justice. The reader bonds with these characters only to watch them fall apart. The brutality of the prison guards, the impotence of the big-city Communist Party lawyers, the incontrovertible power of the state of Alabama in its most racist and corrupt form, the love of good, simple, God-fearing Southern folks—Troutt writes this story as the pure tragedy it was.
As they come closer to the present day, the stories become longer, and the legal cases become less central. It’s not until the last 10 pages of the 40-page “Bitch, Son of a Bitch” that Troutt addresses the legal matter at hand—police entry without a search warrant. With its female protagonist, wholly drawn characters, and rich cultural references, “Bitch” reads like black women’s fiction, recalling the work of Toni Morrison or Gloria Naylor. “…Vonetta, deep in a mood, wished that her first footer of 1959 would be a man. She wished this backwards over their New Year’s meal of black-eyed peas, hog maws and greens….’Male be him let.’” A few days later a man crosses the threshold who is the color of “dark chocolate inside the bite and threw no glare or shine.”
In a similar vein, “Tell About Tellin’” doesn’t really need a legal case except to justify its inclusion in this collection. Troutt’s full narrative powers come to the fore in this story of the 1968 Detroit riots told in the voice of a very high junkie. “They tore it up, tore up the stores on 12th, most of ’em if they had food or liquor or clothes. They shook ’em like trees and the fruits fell down….I was groovin, sittin on the curb, leanin on the hydrant, just checkin out the scene, fucked up as I wanna be….Wanted mine no doubt but murderized by bliss I couldn’t move.”
In the final story, “The Monkey Suit,” about a young fast-track lawyer stymied by racism at his nearly all-white firm, the legal case doesn’t even happen. The main character and his mother discuss filing suit, but while we can infer that action is taken, its outcome remains a mystery.
The only off-key note in The Monkey Suit comes at the end. After an inspiring introduction and an expanse of great stories, the afterword indulges in deconstructionist lit-crit that might be interesting if it were not for its legal/literary-theory language and its what-have-we-learned tone. Troutt is a law professor and, like many professors, tends to overstate the point.
His point is best made by the open-endedness of the final story, which by virtue of its anticlimax forces the reader to think about the issues raised by the collection as a whole. In “Never Was,” based on the 1940s case Screws v. United States, Bobby Hall gets beaten to death by the town sheriff after he hires a white lawyer to help him retrieve a gun the sheriff has confiscated illegally. Fifty years later, in “The Monkey Suit,” the protagonist, himself a lawyer, hesitates in filing a discrimination case, even though no lynch mobs lie in wait.
These characters do not disappear easily. Each has tremendous dignity. They are not moral people in the manner of traditional abolitionist/integrationist/civil rights literature, but even with their vices and flaws, the protagonists manifest integrity in its purest form. The early stories call to the mind the famous ’60s photograph depicting black men at a march wearing signs that say simply, “I am a man.” Contrast this to 1995, when a million black men just marched. This book details that very necessary evolution, from thinking of freedom, to fighting for freedom, to finally becoming free. CP