“A woman living alone didn’t stand much chance.”
Ann Petry is a terrific writer. The precise way in which she articulates the thoughts and various state of minds of her characters brought to my mind the writing of Nella Larsen and Edith Wharton. But whereas I could stand the cynicism and tragic finales of Wharton’s novels (in which usually horrible things happen to privileged, and often horrible, individuals) I had a hard time stomaching the ending in The Street.
Set in 1940s The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, who moves on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie is a resilient woman who has come to believe that through hard-work and self-sacrifice she can attain a level of happiness and prosperity. She also happens to be beautiful: white and black men treat like a sexual object, white women regard her with open contempt, and other black women tend to be jealous or suspicious of her.
Lutie’s daily existence is punctuated by racism, sexism, and classism. Witnessing the violence, desperation, and death around her reinforces her desire to escape her neighbourhood and the growingly inappropriate behaviour of her building’s super, an unstable man named Jones.
Through flashbacks we learn more of the characters’ history, such as the dissolution of Lutie’s marriage and Jones’ time in the navy. Scenes take their time to unfold as the narrative is focused less on action and more on character interiority. Petry allows her readers to view the world through their eyes and at times this can be quite jarring. Jones’ disturbed thoughts are troubling indeed and his growing obsession with Lutie is guaranteed to make readers as uncomfortable as reading from Humbert Humbert’s perspective. Petry demonstrates how gifted a writer she is by outlining his skewed worldview and disordered thinking, so much so that I was afraid of being inside his head.
Petry also gives two other women in Lutie’s building a voice: there is the watchful—and formidable—Mrs. Hedges who runs a brothel and Min, a seemingly docile woman who lives with—and is abused by—Jones. There are also portions of the narrative centred around Boots, yet another man who wants Lutie for himself. Petry once again showcases her skill by making us sympathise, however briefly, with a character such as Boots (who happens to be a rather reprehensible human being).
Throughout the course of the narrative Lutie tries to overcome obstacles and hardships. Her dignity and strength made her into an admirable character. As a single black mother Lutie is subjected to a myriad of injustices, and as her preoccupation with money—and leaving ‘the street’—grows, she unwittingly pushes her son towards Jones.
Petry brings to life—more for worse than better—the city in which her characters move in. She renders the cacophony on the streets as well as the atmosphere within closed spaces (like the charged and suffocating atmosphere in Jones’ apartment).
I really liked the rhythm of Petry prose, created in part thanks to the repetition of certain specific words, phrases, and ideas. While I loved how perceptive Petry was in registering the nuances of her characters’ different moods and thoughts, I was exhausted by how relentlessly depressing her story was (throughout the narrative women are slapped around, threatened with physical assault, intimidated, or are treated as if belonging to a lesser species).
Given Petry’s disenchanted portrayal of the American dream, I wasn’t expecting a rosy finale. Still, I was quite bitter about the way she ends things. While I understand that it is a realistic ending, I didn’t find the Bub/Jones situation to be all that credible.
Readers who prefer fast-paced or plot-driven novel may want to skip this one but those who are interested in a meticulous character study should definitely consider picking this long-overlooked classic up.
While I’m not necessarily ‘happy’ to have read this book (I’m not a sadist), Petry’s adroit social commentary and captivating prose are worth reading.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars