Wrath James White
Trade Paperback, 292 pages, $22.95
Review by Sheila Merritt
Hatred is one of the most potent of emotions. In Yaccub’s Curse, Wrath James White looks unflinchingly at antagonistic race relations in a horror filled urban universe. Hatred flourishes in this setting: Certainly between African Americans and Caucasians; but also, between gangs and between the powerful and powerless. There is a suggestion of a supernatural purpose behind the hate – a metaphysical means of maintaining the delicate balance of a vicious, vindictive status quo. The otherworldly premise is far less interesting than the excellent edgy atmosphere that the author establishes with a vengeance.
The story unfolds from the point of view of a suicidal gangster, Malick Black. Malick tells of his transformation into a cold blooded killer known on the streets as “Snap.” In a very astute portion of the novel, Malick partially blames a well meaning school teacher for the course his life takes. The teacher sees his intelligence, and notes his philosophical bent. She gives him some books, with existential themes and characters, to motivate him to read and reflect. The works, however, only solidify his negative world view. In his mind, they validate violence; there’s no point to life, anyway.
Much of the narrative is, indeed, about the reality of violence and Malick’s maelstrom of malice. It is punctuated by too many fight scenes. The story’s other excess is its theological ruminations and morality musings. Malick’s opinion of religion is reiterated several times, and his thoughts on the suffering of innocents are also often repeated.
What the author excels at is the ferocious, yet lyrical, way he attacks ambiance: “As the train made its way through and the depressed weather-torn houses with sagging roofs, rotting paint, and shattered windows loomed into view looking worse than the death camps at Auschwitz, the entire train would go silent. This was the roughest, poorest section of Philadelphia marked by hills of garbage, thigh high weeds, packs of soot covered children chasing each other through barren fields of rusted cars and occasionally shooting at one another, miniscule yards filled with trash and savage, half-starved mongrels chained to rusted fences that snarled at us as we rumbled past, and tired old men rocking on front porches while nursing bottles of wine and watching the crackwhores strut by them offering their withering and diseased bodies for less than the price of a happy meal.”
Wrath James White also pointedly employs the wisdom and wit of a wide spectrum of cultural-political movers and shakers; their words are used as quotes to head each chapter. The range of diverse voices includes rappers, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Paul Sartre, Mark Twain, and Aristotle. The quotation from Malcolm X is particularly powerful: “Be careful, be courteous, obey the laws, respect everyone, but if someone puts his hands on you, send him to the cemetery.”
Yaccub’s Curse is a controversial and combustive tale. The supernatural element alluded to briefly at the novel’s opening, and then picked up again much later in the story, can easily be construed as simple allegory. It is of secondary relevance to the up front, no holds barred, futility of a harsh homegrown hell. The devastating erosion of a people; their economic entrapment and enslavement is the core and crux of the novel. Stark sorrowful suffering, without the promise of release, is the hardened heart of horror.