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Stanley Crouch is the PC antichrist, and Always in Pursuit is the third chapter of his scripture. If you don’t already know, the self-proclaimed hanging judge has built his career on a willingness to tap dance where wise men fear to tread; his two previous essay collections, Notes of a Hanging Judge and The All-American Skin Game, established his rep for sending sacred cows off to the slaughterhouse. This time, Crouch is out to expound yet again upon his traditional themes: black people’s bitching, jazz as the essential metaphor for the American character, and the imperatives of democracy in this country.

The trademark acid-dipped quill and the plain meanness that Crouch brings to bear make it tempting to dismiss him as yet another of the designer Toms who grin their way to prominence each year. But, truth be told, Crouch might well be the most elegant prose writer this side of James Baldwin. And make no mistake, the aesthetic edge and structural rhythms of Always in Pursuit are unassailable. The opening sentences of “Trouble in the East,” a meditation on Bosnia, nearly scorch the page: “It is in the bottomless pitch-blackness that the hard blues is played….In Bosnia, winter rises up and eases on out, but death still uses the thin blue blades of its nails with no distinctions as to health or frailty.” Or the opening to “Blues at the Crossroads: Getting Down”:

Somewhere down there where we tend to think that it is darker than in any other part of the country; down there where we seem to feel the stickiness of murder tinting the air and where we recollect through our senses the smell of magnolias without even knowing their scent; somewhere down there in that place where the moon shines bright and we conjure up those who once drank white lightning and committed the startling and hot deed of thunderbolts; all over that part of the land where we so often believe that the jungle of the human soul rules by growl and claw or by the extensions of the claw that are the knife and the bullet; down and out of this upper industrial range and so low on the rural map of this continent that its meanings ring out the bass tones so heavy that only the elephant aspects of our hearing can recognize the melody with absolute clarity is the American South.

Crouch has the capacity to deliver labyrinthine sentences of that caliber time and again, but the content of those verses is a whole ‘nother story. He has an uncanny talent for cutting through the doctrinaire bullshit that congests our understanding of this country while simultaneously generating obfuscatory dung himself.

In a fit of euphoric optimism, he argues that race will become nearly inconsequential in the next century as a result of intermixture and the cultural cross-fertilization that makes itself linguistically, aesthetically, and musically apparent at every turn. But such an argument ignores that fact that American society—no matter how culturally mulatto it may become—contains a vast and growing class chasm and that race, since the colonial era, has enabled it to avoid dealing with the fissuring force of class resentment. The Republican sweep of the South—largely a product of poor white resentment of black “entitlements”—and the broken record of nativism that has echoed through eons of American history could keep racialist ideas alive well into the next century. More than a few people believed, as Crouch is surely aware, that Reconstruction was the beginning of the end of America’s race problem; instead, it prefaced the rise of a redneck kingdom that barbecued black men for sport, suspended the Constitution, and ruled the South for seven decades.

It’s fair to say that Crouch is obsessed with what he sees as the original sin of modern politics: the black power movement. His willingness to go the extra yard in an essay if it means he can dis the Black Panther Party leads to Always’ more awkward moments. Indeed, Crouch’s willingness to speak critically to and of black America and his demand that we demand more of ourselves are at times undercut by his addiction to arsenic-laced commentary. In a piece apparently written in the aftermath of the death of Betty Shabazz, Crouch distastefully throws a critical uppercut at the corpse of her husband, Malcolm X. Lobbying that Shabazz be posthumously kicked out of the sacred triad of widows that included Myrlie Evers and Coretta Scott King because her husband was, in his view, a demagogue and not a bona fide Civil Rights Leader is wasted energy, to say the least. Such arguments are the reason why speaking Crouch’s name in a room full of black people is liable to get you an invite to step outside.

The best moments in Always in Pursuit are a catalog of shrewdly dispensed left-handed compliments and observations that, while disturbing, can’t be cavalierly dismissed. When Crouch is in his zone, reading him is like playing chess against a very good opponent. And there are inevitable casualties. In capsule essays, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, and Chris Darden are surgically decapitated for blandly remixing the rich-girl blues, indulging in self-congratulatory navel-gazing, and attempting to hide legal ineptitude behind the cloak of the “irrationality” of black juries, respectively. Of the three, Jackson’s is the most savaged corpse. Crouch opines, “Always a mediocre singer given to progressively unimaginative phrasing and overstatement, Jackson will deliver a shallow version of gospel and some maudlin rhythm and blues, use the harsh bravado of rock inflection, posture as a love child reciting the pieties necessary for world peace, stoop to the vulgar gestures that are a counterfeit shorthand for lower-class rage…” No argument there. And to his credit, Crouch is as astute and lavish in his praise of Duke Ellington and his mentor Albert Murray as he is harsh in his criticism of his targets. Always in Pursuit might well be Crouch’s best collection thus far, and it establishes him as a writer who must be read—if only so the reader can disagree with his conclusions. Crouch has raised the ante with a sly talent and a flair for keeping the hellhounds of mediocrity off his trail.CP