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Moving up in the world is what many people live for, and their stories can make great fiction, especially when they reveal what they have sacrificed along the way. That’s the focus of several stories in Robert J. Williams’ new collection Strivers—a group of stories mostly about the aspirations and disappointments of middle-class African Americans, people who are rising, either out of the ghetto or into Ivy League colleges or marriages with professionals. The toll is subtly ever-present: “Strivers they were, brown bloods, haters of their own past, obsessed with light skin, good hair, good times…” The strivers of the title story, set in the 1950s, are painfully oblivious to the real thoughts and feelings of their father, who works as a railroad train porter.
If the best fiction aims to dissect social reality, this collection fits in with that long, distinguished, and dazzling tradition. Social realism is what Strivers is all about. In “Dates for Kreeger,” Williams presents a very successful gay government worker who lives in Norfolk, Virginia and is only half out of the closet. “Must be a Southern thing, Kreeger surmised; white or black, in or out, colorful turns of phrase and jokey charm to mask the pain and shame” of being gay. In “The Interview,” a young, educated job applicant reconsiders a gig after he gets a close look at the community of white workers at his prospective place of employment. And in “Lester is Late,” one man “habitually made much of his effort to disprove the ‘Negro stereotype.’ After his time in Korea, Richard led a rigid and orderly civilian life—two successful sons, a manageable but not overwhelming number of civic and religious affiliations, and a ranch-house with several add-ons coincided with a steady series of promotions at the local social security administration office.”
The 15 stories in Strivers are impressive and conjure one social milieu after another, but there are no postmodernist fireworks here. And thank goodness for that—such stylistic posturing would only deflect attention from the main thing: what’s in these people’s hearts and how to make that square (or not) with their world. That’s evident in stories like “Glass House,” which portrays an ex-military housewife whose dissatisfaction with her house reflects dissatisfaction with her life; a story about a rough thief with an unexpectedly chilling ending; and “Tea Time,” which focuses on an affluent, biracial couple in Bethesda who volunteer to mentor a poor child.
But not every story goes in the direction you think it will. In the post-World War II tale “Cotton Compress,” a graduate student visits his family in the rural South, eager to help cotton laborers. But they don’t want to be helped in the way he wants to help, so he settles for something else, satisfying the protagonist’s philanthropic agenda. Even if he wanted to do more, “he gladly repeated the words to himself: I can help him, with that.” In these stories, sometimes the smallest tasks completely upend a person’s view of the world and, thus, the road they travel.
Robert J. Williams will read from and discuss Strivers and Other Stories at Politics and Prose at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free.