From an acclaimed, award-winning novelist comes this brilliant hybrid of reportage, fiction, and historical fact: the stories of three black men whose tragic lives speak resoundingly to the problem of race in British society.
With his characteristic grace and forceful prose, Phillips describes the lives of three very different men: Francis Barber, "given" to the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, whose friendship with Johnson led to his wretched demise; Randolph Turpin, a boxing champion who ended his life in debt and decrepitude; and David Oluwale, a Nigerian stowaway who arrived in Leeds in 1949 and whose death at the hands of police twenty years later was a wake up call for the entire nation. As Phillips weaves together these three stories, he illuminates the complexities of race relations and social constraints with devastating results
Signature Reviewed by Kate Christensen Along with interest and admiration, I read parts of Caryl Phillipss new book, Foreigners, with, I confess, a mixture of bemused perplexity and thwarted expectations, wondering, what is this guy up to here? The rather stodgy historical passages coexist somewhat uneasily with the more fluid and lyrical fictionalized accounts. The three sections rub up against each other with a fierce but not quite cohesive energy. But in the end, the book is a bleakly ironic examination of what it means to be Other--historically and socially--through the stories of three very different black men in England. The first section, Doctor Johnson's Watch, is narrated by a late-18th-century journalist who sets out to write a piece for a gentleman's magazine about Francis Barber, the Jamaican boy who was given in the early 1750s to Dr. Samuel Johnson, of the famous Dictionary. Dr. Johnson raised the negro as his ward until his death; he gave him his freedom and a generous pension, which Barber squandered. At the end of the narrative, Barber, lying on the verge of death in a squalid pauper's hospital, offers poignant insight into the nature of freedom and otherness, insight that the journalist, despite good intentions, may not be prepared to receive.The second section, Made in Wales, is narrated in a hard-boiled third person that traces the rise and fall of Randy Turpin, the mixed-race boxer who beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1951 to become, briefly, middleweight champion of the world, then fell, inevitably, the narrative suggests, into hapless debt and ruin. The third, final, most riveting and beautifully written section, Northern Lights, is told by a chorus of voices who cobble together the mysterious life and death of David Oluwale, a 20th-century version of Bartleby, a stowaway from Nigeria who washes up in Leeds in 1949 and ends his life stubbornly homeless, willfully persecuted and in 1969, drowned.Interestingly, Phillips goes into none of these three black mens consciousnesses or psyches. The reader stands some distance away from them with the narrators; except for Barber's piercing, frank lament, we don't get any direct emotional information from any of them. This narrative strategy is essential to the book's intent, as is, I suspect, the uneasiness it provoked in me along the way. Phillips gets at real-life complexities in a visceral, non didactic way: there are no victims or heroes here. I finished the book hearing Melville's Ah humanity! echoing back through its pages.Kate Christensen's fourth novel, The Great Man , was published last month by Doubleday.
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November 10, 2008
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Excerpt from Foreigners by Caryl Phillips
It was a cold December morning, and the bitter wind penetrated my black cloak with ease. However, the stubborn sun continued to shine brightly in the sky, although it failed to bestow any warmth on either myself or the two dozen sombre souls gathered outside of Bolt Court. I glanced about my person, realizing that I was part of a bizarre congregation that represented both high and low society, but how could we be anything other than a queer assembly of misfits when one considered the personage who was to be buried on this melancholy English morning? London society was still somewhat amused by the gossip relating to the recently departed Dr. Johnsons final exchange with the sour-natured Sir John Hawkins, an apparently abrupt conversation which had taken place only some few short days before the doctors death. Understanding that his mortal time was limited, the doctor had demanded of his chief executor in that stern, almost impolite, tone that he had perfected, a tenor of voice which unfortunately masked his more cordial nature, ?Where do you intend to bury me?? When the news of the doctors question reached the ears of the leisured gentlemen who recline in the smoke-filled coffee houses which constitute Londons informal business world, the question served only to occasion much laughter from both those who knew the gentleman personally, and from those who knew of him by reputation. Indeed, what kind of a question was this? Where do you intend to bury me? Apparently Sir John Hawkins maintained his countenance and answered plainly, In Westminster Abbey? He might well have continued and punctuated his uncharacteristically civil answer with the rather less civil question, My good man, where else do you expect to be lain to rest? According to Hawkins, on receiving this news the great man simply stared back and then, almost as an afterthought, he adjusted his inadequate wig. Although he was evidently drawing close to the terminus of his existence, the slovenly doctor still appeared to be insensible to the squalid spectacle that he presented. However, despite his shabby appearance, Samuel Johnson was undoubtedly the foremost literary scholar of his age, a man whom nobody would dare to deny his rightful place in the abbey next to Geoffrey Chaucer and John Dryden. Eventually, the great gentleman, as though finally understanding that his resting place was in deed to be Westminster Abbey, continued in a less stentorian voice. Then, he whispered, if any friends think it worthwhile to give me a stone, let it be placed over me so as to protect my body. No report was made of Sir John Hawkins reply, if indeed there was any, to this plaintive, and surprisingly coy, request by the good doctor. On the Monday after the doctor took his leave from this earthly world, we subdued mourners gathered on the narrow pavement outside of Bolt Court. Our gloomy congregation could not be accommodated within the modest confines of Dr. Johnsons house and, I confess, at this time I was not a member of that privileged inner circle who strolled boldly from their carriages and knocked upon the door before waiting confidently for admittance. Sixteen years ago, I was little more than a minor literary wit in London society, but more properly I was regarded as a financial investor, a man of the City. My participation in Dr. Johnsons wider circle was unquestioned, but good manners prevented me from attempting to assert a prominence which I had not yet earned. Accordingly, I stood with the less celebrated members of the Literary Club and first stamped my feet, and then rubbed my hands together against the cold, determining that I would remember every last detail of this momentous day so that I might set it