Gene Lyons
March 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Many are the perils of autobiography. Seemingly the simplest form of storytelling, it tempts the unwary author with that most seductive narcotic: the first-person singular. Tricky enough in the hands of a literary sophisticate like James Baldwin or Philip Roth, the urge to turn one’s life into narrative can easily lead less gifted authors into revelations very different from those they intended. So it is with Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler: a young black man in america (Random House, $23), the often remarkable, often remarkably obtuse saga of its author’s seemingly improbable journey from a Virginia penitentiary for armed robbery to a career as a Washington Post reporter. McCall certainly has a story to tell, and a plainspoken journalistic style in which to tell it. Already optioned to Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton, Makes Me Wanna Holler is the episodic tale of a young black man’s troubled coming-of- age in a world he sees as utterly dominated by white racism to the point where hatred and mad violence seem the only possible response-violence against white and black alike, and against black women in particular. That McCall survived his adolescence at all-much less emerged as a white- collar suburbanite bitterly insulted by whites who lock their car doors when they see him coming, but fearful and resentful of black street gangs, too-is truly remarkable. To hear him tell it, random beatings, muggings, drug deals, shootings, stabbings, burglaries, armed stickups and appalling gang rapes were his youthful rites of passage-all explained, if not quite excused, to McCall’s way of thinking, by feelings of powerlessness and self-loathing. ”The guys on the street who got the most respect,” he writes, ”were those who had reps as crazy niggers. A crazy nigger was someone who had an explosive temper, someone who took flak from no one-man, woman or child. We regarded craziness as an esteemed quality, something to be admired, like white people admire courage. In fact, to our way of thinking, craziness and courage were one and the same.” Oddly enough, McCall didn’t grow up in a slum, nor in the kind of fatherless home so often blamed for social alienation. His family, of which he says remarkably little of real psychological interest, lived in Cavalier Manor, a middle-class black neighborhood in Portsmouth, Va., where his stepfather worked in a naval shipyard. Both parents preached the gospel of education, hard work, and self-denial. Much affected by the civil rights turmoil of the ’60s, however, McCall and his homeys drew their own conclusions. A painful experience as one of a handful of black sixth graders in a newly integrated school began the process. Watching his stepfather cringe over racial slights on the job and being treated like a groveling darky by whites for whom he did weekend landscaping left him angry. ”A two-parent home,” he says, ”is no better off than a single- parent one if the father is f — -ed up in the head and beaten down. There’s nothing more dangerous and destructive in a household than a frustrated, oppressed black man.” So far so good. Sociology and racial polemics, however, can take a writer only so far-and in McCall’s case, it’s not far enough. After all, millions of black Americans have experienced racial indignities without allowing rage to consume their lives. Where McCall falters is not merely in the all-too- familiar the-white-man-made-me-do-it casuistry that pervades the book, nor in his constant demeaning references to ”tweedy, pencil-head white men” and ”flour-faced, blue-haired” white women-offensive though they are. The truth is that he doesn’t do a whole lot more persuasive job with the book’s one- dimensional black characters, beginning, unfortunately, with himself.

One needn’t, for example, question the sincerity of McCall’s regret for his violent past to wonder why he would characterize the manager of a McDonald’s restaurant whom he threatened to shoot during a stickup as ”an Uncle Tom, one of those head-scratching niggers, willing to put his devalued life on the line to protect the white man’s property.” But shouldn’t a man with a confessed history of gang rape think twice before writing an account of the breakup of his second marriage that’s so patently one-sided many readers will wish they could hear the ex-wife’s story? A troubling, compelling polemic all the same. B

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