Rediscovered in the late 1960s after an interrupted career, Robert Deane Pharr constructs a critique of the American dream and the African American community's ability to attain it. By handing his manuscript from one professor to another at the Columbia Faculty Club (where he worked as a waiter), he eventually saw the publication of his first novel, The Book of Numbers, in 1969. As Pharr's most widely respected and successful novel, this first major work relates the role crime and fate play in the African American attainment of the American dream.
Charting the rise and fall of a numbers runner named David Greene, Pharr suggests that in order to break into the restrictive confines of the American dream, an African American must work outside the bounds of legitimacy. This novel, set in a small southern city during the Depression, combines this critique with an overlay of biblical prophecy to paint a portrait of a community and a people caught between their hopes for success and the limited possibility that they might be realized. His characters (Blueboy Harris, Althea Goines, Delilah Mazique) defy the law and risk all for the illusion of certainty. Flawed by excessive length (a quality that would also plague his second novel, S.R.O.) and didacticism, The Book of Numbers nonetheless demonstrates Pharr's talent for relating dialect and dialogue. His evocative exploration of the ways in which chance bolsters human endurance established a framework for depicting the urban experience of African Americans that persists today. The book's success—eventually leading to an Avco film of the same title (1973)—buoyed Pharr's career and motivated the process of self-reflection and imagination that his succeeding works described.
Pharr's second novel, S.R.O. (1971), moves his exploration of the dream to Harlem, where a picaresque parade of lesbians, drug addicts, and would-be artists explore the paths of fulfillment left open to them. This most autobiographical and self-reflexive of Pharr's works documents Sid Bailey's relationships with beautiful recovering addict Gloria Bascomb and with his writing (which he calls “his woman”). In particular, critics have praised the use of structural interchapters that alleviate and focus the first-person energies of the primary narrative. Once again, however, it is an extraordinarily long, didactic novel that harbors moments of exquisite dialogue and insight.
Pharr continued to write after S.R.O. (producing The Welfare Bitch in 1973 and The Soul Murder Case: A Confession of a Victim in 1975), but he never achieved the kind of success he tasted with The Book of Numbers. Relating its protagonist's unwilling protection of a relative's crime empire, Giveadamn Brown (1978), Pharr's final work, combines brevity of expression and the author's enduring skill with dialogue and quickly paced action. Of the late works, it comes closest to enacting the promise of his critical perspective on ambition and success in the United States.
The Book of Numbers is an important, groundbreaking analysis of the ironies that persist within the African American experience. As a social critic, literary realist, and pioneer in the exploration of the mechanics of writing, Robert Deane Pharr stands as an exemplar for authors who followed him.