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McCluskey, John A., Jr.

(b. 1944)


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Ralph Ellison (1914—1994)

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(b. 1944), novelist, short story writer, educator, and scholar.

Born in Ohio, John A. McCluskey, Jr., earned his BA at Harvard (1966) and his MA at Stanford (1972). His first novel, Look What They Done to My Song (1974), is a highly episodic first-person narrative told by Mack, a twenty-six-year-old saxophone player. Set in the Boston area around 1970, the book depicts its narrator's search for direction and commitment following the assasinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In part a portrait of the artist, the novel also draws effectively upon the picaresque tradition. Its sprawling cast of characters voices the diversity of social-political opinions prevalent in the late 1960s. To the idealistic Mack, McCluskey juxtaposes the unprincipled Ubangi, hustler extraordinaire, whose strategems often misfire hilariously, as when the supposedly street-smart Ubangi decides to become a pimp—only to discover that his first whore, a female impersonator named Ova Easy, is already being pimped by the police. One of the novel's central concerns is change, both personal and social, and the function of art as an instrument of change. The closing chapter, set in a church, presents Mack's vision of music as “the spirit-healer.” Through Mack, McCluskey expresses his own belief in the common purposes of art and religion: their affirmation of spirit, hope, and love.

Mr. America's Last Season Blues (1983), McCluskey's second novel, is a third-person narrative centered on Roscoe Americus, Jr., an aging athlete. More complex in characterization and structure than its predecessor, the book subverts stereotypes of the black athlete and engages the reader's emotions in the personal crises Roscoe confronts: his separation from his wife, his abortive comeback as player-coach for a semi-professional football team, and his inability to assist his lover's son, unjustly charged with mudering a white youth. Roscoe's efforts to gather evidence that would free Stone are stymied not only by the racism of the all-white jury but by the silence of those within the African American community whose testimony would lead to Stone's acquittal. The problems Roscoe faces enable McCluskey to movingly explore the legacy of racism, the issue of personal responsibility, and the importance of family ties and the past.

McCluskey's novels, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, incorporate social-political concerns without being dominated by them. His principal mode is literary realism, though his second novel invokes the magic realism of a Toni Morrison work in its portrait of Roscoe's father's ghost. McCluskey draws extensively upon African American oral traditions and such musical forms as jazz and the blues. Some of his best writing can be found in his short stories, particularly “The Best Teacher in Georgia.” McCluskey has also edited three volumes of essays on African American historical figures, as well as the collected stories of Rudolph Fisher (City of Refuge, 1987). With Charles R. Johnson, he edited Black Men Speaking (1997). Although he has produced few books of fiction, the artistry and moral force of Mr. America's Last Season Blues suggest that his work merits continuing attention.

Frank E. Moorer, “John A. McCluskey, Jr.,” in DLB, vol. 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, eds. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, 1984, pp. 179–181.Charles H. Rowell, “An Interview with John McCluskey, Jr.,” Callaloo 19:4 (Fall 1996): 911–928.

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Subjects: Literature.


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