2005, 214 p
W. C. Field described Bert Williams, the real-life subject of this novel, as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew”, and this paradox is just one of many in this book. Bert Williams was a light-skinned West Indian but adopted as his stage persona a black-faced “coon” character. He consciously adopted this stage identity as he applied his cork makeup, and scrupulously removed both after the performance: something that his fellow negro performers could not do. Despite the increasing discomfort of his colleagues with his depiction of a shuffling, feebleminded “coon” , he responded to the acclaim of white audiences by continuing to play the character, eventually as the only “blackface” amongst Ziegfield’s Follies. And yet, his act raised the profile of Negro performers, heading Booker T. Washington to note that “He has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts, I have been obliged to fight my way”. And yet, this “smile” is so ambiguous and shallow: white audiences boycotted his attempts to move beyond the “nigger” stereotype, and he was trapped into continuing to play the character in order to maintain his popularity.
This book is told from multiple points of view, particularly from the middle of the book onwards. I’m not sure if this narrative style was as prominent at the start, but I certainly noticed it as the book went on, and it seemed to mirror the increasing disintegration of his inner personality, marriage and stage success as it was perceived more and more by others. The narrative is interspersed with film scripts, newspaper reports etc (that I assume are fictional, but I wouldn’t know) in a sort of papier-mache, constructed effect that emphasizes the emptiness of the man underneath.
The tone of the book is fairly simple and direct. It raises big issues, though, about race, identity, performance and popular acclaim through the story of one man.