Hyper-intelligent, self-indulgent hot messes, you have found your new fictional hero.
When Jed Goodfinch, the narrator of Darryl Pinckney’s excellent Black Deutschland, arrives in ‘80s Berlin, he’s looking to get laid. In his late twenties, Black and gay, Jed seeks to escape Chicago and live the expat life on the west side of the wall. This is not his first jaunt to the then divided city and he performs a mental genuflection at the sight of the giant Mercedes-Benz symbol atop the Europa Center mall. In return he hopes the revolving silver star will grant him adventure and permanent residency within the city he loves. The former comes easier than the latter, but Jed manages to survive the decade to stand atop the Berlin Wall when the Soviet system finally collapses. Berlin is on its way to being unified and so, possibly, is Jed.
As a narrator, Jed tends to be discursive. Literate and opinionated, he is also an alcoholic and drug addict who tells his story in vignettes that range from the present in Germany, his family’s past in Chicago and the occasional well-placed historical aside.
A self-appraised former fat boy, much of his self-loathing comes from body dysmorphia and public drunkenness. He has been a disappointment to his family of achievers: his activist mother, entrepreneurial father and, especially, his cousin Ruthanne. Nicknamed Cello, Ruthanne is a brilliant concert pianist who was molded by Jed’s mother. Cello’s splendor possessed a gravity that pulled in Jed’s parents’ love and he resents her for it. A resident of Berlin married to an industrialist, Cello represents a standard Jed cannot hope to achieve. She is his benchmark until her own addictions warp her in Jed’s estimation.
Division becomes an easy theme for any story set in Berlin before the wall crumbled. There is Cello and Jed and the insurmountable gulf of shared history, need and derision. There is America as seen through a European gaze. “Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” Jed’s black skin won’t get him killed in Berlin. He has to get used to the not being afraid of cops while out on his late night strolls. But, while his skin may be acceptable, his sexual orientation remains taboo. Jed is left to cruising the parks by the wall and pining after burly straight coworkers. He is a sober man, but clings to his favorite dive bar, the Chi-Chi, an expat hangout of scum and misdemeanor villainy. As the novel progresses, Jed never quite feels whole. Even his grasp on Berlin and his fantastical vision of being a cultured expat prove elusive when he runs out of opportunity and has to return to his Chicago and his parents.
While division may be obvious, Pinckney also explores ideas of renewal through Jed. Newly sober and out of rehab, he arrives in Berlin to work for a famed architect and thinker, N.I. Rosen-Montag. Portrayed as something of a rock star, Rosen-Montag has been commissioned to bring the future to what is left of West Berlin’s unused and war ravaged spaces. Jed is his fanboy, who penned and published an adoring essay about the architect’s work and became something of an impulse hire.
While fate places Jed in the center of this great endeavor, the renewal of the city becomes as stagnant as his own. Bureaucracy burdens urban renewal while half measures keep Jed from being fully realized. He loves books, cigarettes and men who are no good for him. He maintains his sobriety from white wine while indulging in other drugs. Jed Goodfinch is a mess. Yet it’s the messiness and intelligence that makes Jed so appealing a narrator. His is the life of a side character given the opportunity to speak. He lives in the periphery of bigger lives; Rosen-Montag takes a liking to him and gives him a desk in his offices; Cello lets him live in a maid’s room off the kitchen of her mansion; his parents are pillars of their community, a distinction Jed rejects. He is even kept at arms length by the other expats at the Chi-Chi.
Around the middle of the book, Jed poignantly intones: “One of the surprises of growing up was finding out what things had been about.” We are living lives of quiet desperation, mysteries to ourselves. Pinckney knows this and created Jed Goodfinch as our reflection. For those of us who have been or continue to be hyper-intelligent, self-indulgent hot messes, you have found your new fictional hero. The self-assured among us need to find something else to read.