Baker Returns to Old New York in 'Strivers Row'

Kevin Baker

Author Kevin Baker. Ellen Abrams hide caption

itoggle caption Ellen Abrams

Novelist Kevin Baker has just published the third volume of his City on Fire trilogy. Strivers Row is set amid the rising racial tensions of Harlem in 1943.

As in the previous books — Dreamland and Paradise Alley — Baker allows his fictional creations to mix and mingle with historical characters.

The story focuses on the fictional Jonah Dove, a minister at one of the city's greatest churches, and the very real Malcolm Little, later to become Malcolm X.

Baker tells Liane Hansen about the book.

Excerpt: 'Strivers Row'

Cover of Strivers Row, a novel by Kevin Baker

'Strivers Row' is the third book in Kevin Baker's 'City on Fire' trilogy. hide caption

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Malcolm

He thought about the rabbits sometimes, lying awake at night in the little room in Ella's house, under the eaves.

It had been back in West Lansing, when he was twelve years old, just after his mother had taken ill and they had all been split up. A Sunday afternoon in the late fall, nearly winter. The smell of something burning off in the distance. The men and boys walking through the yellowed grass, holding the straining dogs tight on their leashes. Malcolm was walking with Mr. Gohannas and Big Boy, dangling the .22 off his hip, trying to whip it all about like he'd seen the gunfighters do in the Western serials. He held it to his eye and aimed it here, there, even at the backs of the men around him, until one of them turned and caught him.

"You watch that gun, boy," he scolded. "Don't you be pointing it at nobody!"

Malcolm had dropped his head down, holding the gun steadier, glancing up furtively now at the other men to see if they had noticed his shame. All of them darker than he was, their skin the color of burnt coffee or railroad coal, faces lined and creased like worn car seats. Wearing their field overalls and work boots, redolent with the scent of men's sweat and dirt.

Some of them with their boys next to them — wearing their handed-down overalls; faces exactly the same only smoother, as if all the creases had been ironed out. Their ragged hair knotted up in burrs and tangles, like the farmers they were and would always be.

"Get ready now," Mr. Gohannas told them, his voice urgent though still kindly.

"Right 'bout here — "

The men stopped at the edge of an open field. At its far end Malcolm could make out a tangled clump of bent scrub trees, and thorn bushes. The men looked at each other, a few of them nodding solemnly, then they let the dogs go and began to fan out, kneeling in the high grass.

"Here they come now!"

The loosed dogs had run straight toward the thicket, baying and scuffling their way in past the lowered tree branches. There was silence for a few, long moments — then the renewed sound of pounding feet, as the first rabbits flew out from the bushes. Lean, gray, winter hares, leaping ahead with their eyes wide and their long ears back, the dogs scrambling after them.

"Easy now," the man nearest to Malcolm whispered tenderly to his son, a boy younger than Malcolm was, toting a shotgun.

"Let them come back — "

Leaving the hounds still immersed in the brambles, the hares made a wide, panicked bolt around the perimeter of the field. Running so fast and hard that Malcolm thought they must surely escape — the only sound their powerful, widened winter feet thumping softly over the grass. He could not understand why the men hadn't fired, all these old, slow, black men still staring out from the bushes, and he rose as if to run after the rabbits. But then he felt Mr. Gohannas's hand on his arm, pulling him back down — and sure enough, the hares turned and headed back, toward their hidey-holes in the thicket.

"Now!" the man next to him exclaimed, and his boy fired the crude old shotgun. The blast knocked him flat on his back but the birdshot picked off one of the galloping hares in midair, flipping his thin gray rabbit body head over heels, leaving him to twitch and heave on the ground.

The rest of the men and boys fired at nearly the same time — a fusillade from all their battered, ancient guns that stunned and nearly deafened Malcolm. He shut his eyes, and lowered his head against the noise. When he looked up again he could see five or six more hares on the ground. The younger boys already running out to claim theirs, picking them up by their long ears and smashing their heads with lengths of lead pipe if they were still moving, an act that made Malcolm look away, and his stomach turn over.

"Here now," Mr. Gohannas told him, placing a gentle hand on his chest and turning him around.

The dogs were already flushing the thicket again, and a few minutes later out came more hares. Running slower and a little raggedly this time, if just as frightened. For all of their fear they ran in the exact same direction, around the edge of the field. Making the same long loop back to their homes, the men firing and yelling exultantly as they turned.

Malcolm fired wildly himself, his shot rustling the branches in some nearby trees, the men nearest to him snorting in surprise and indignation —

"Where you shootin', boy?"

— but he had an idea now. The dogs went in to flush the hares a third time — both dogs and hares moving noticeably slower now — and after he reloaded Malcolm scrambled out of the blind before Mr. Gohannas could stop him, Big Boy calling plaintively after him.

"Hey, where you goin', Malcolm?"

He was already running up along the border of the field, his cracked, patent leather city shoes slipping along the dead winter grass. He ran to a spot that was halfway along the hares' trajectory, as best he could figure it, just before the point where they were bound to turn and head back to their thicket. He heard the alarmed shouts of the men behind him, but he ignored them. Kneeling and aiming carefully this time, taking down one hare, then another, before they ever got back within range of the rest of the hunters. The exhausted creatures always flipping over the same way, their long back feet catapulting them over in one final, cinematic somersault.

When the shooting stopped it was Malcolm who ran out after them this time, plucking his hares up by their big ears. Ignoring the continuing, angry shouts of the older, blacker men — smiling to himself, to think how he had been able to figure it out when the rest of them had not. They broke cover and ran up to him, Mr. Gohannas among them, his wide, brown face looking uncomfortable behind his spectacles.

Excerpted from Strivers Row by Kevin Baker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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