rev. of Bourgeois Blues by Jake Lamar

Issue #57
Spring 1992

At twenty-seven, Jake Lamar was a paragon of society an upstanding young black male. He had been reared in a middle-class family in the Bronx, attended parochial and private schools, gone to Harvard, and was now an associate editor at
Time magazine. His memoir is an exegesis of his growing discomfort with his place in this white world, revealing why he eventually quits his job and abandons what had been planned as a safe, bourgeois existence.

At the center of Lamar's psychic apprehensions is his father, and a major portion of the book focuses on their relationship. An abusive, tyrannical figure, Jacob Lamar, Sr., demands much of his children, and he uses himself as an illustration of what hard work and education can bring to them, boasting of how he had escaped the most disadvantaged of all backgrounds poor, black, and Southern and risen to secure a high-ranking position in the city administration and then start his own consulting firm. Later, Lamar, who both admires and fears his father, has a falling out with him, and they end up not speaking for five years. Though their estrangement haunts Lamar, he is forced to turn his attention to other matters, particularly when he arrives at Harvard, which he finds a "dull, cold, segregated place." Trying to reach an accord beyond color lines, he discovers himself lost: "The breezy cordiality I displayed with most everyone masked the growing anger I felt. I was angry at all the
people, white and black, whom I saw as small-minded, bigoted and shallow. And I was angry at myself, for while all I wanted was to be accepted as myself, I feared that the self I cherished so much was terminally ambivalent."

Things do not improve much at
Time, where Lamar is only one of two African Americans among a staff of sixty writers in the New York office. The conservatism there comes in different forms, from an obsessive adherence to "Timestyle," a strict prose standard that precludes, as much as possible, semicolons and colons (called "abominations" by the managing editor), to an indifference to social issues involving blacks. Occasionally, the institutional racism becomes personal, veiled in sly condescension, as when a chief editor reviews one of Lamar's articles and says, begrudgingly, "You seem to have a good understanding of the English language."

In his private life as well, Lamar increasingly faces prejudice and hostility, but nonetheless he is, to a large extent, acquiescent until he sees his father again, who is now a community-college teacher on a mission to inspire minority students. During the reunion, Lamar realizes that he has been compromising more than his preferences for punctuation at
Time: "I thought of all the years I had worried about turning into my father now it seemed I had become something far worse: a self-important buppie, the corporate Tom my father had refused to be, proudly proclaiming myself a writer when all I did was hack for a newsmagazine." That night, he decides to tender his resignation and begin a novel.

Bourgeois Blues will be criticized by some for being too tame, beneficent protecting, for instance,
Time staffers with fictionalized names but recriminations or broad condemnations are not Lamar's specific agenda, nor are they his style, which is eloquent, wry, and compassionate. This is, rather, an important story of self-recognition in a complex, mainstream world which is, on the surface, racially progressive, but which can be as disturbing and hypocritical as any Jim Crow state.